Papalii looks to justify inclusion
It might've taken a pasting from three Canberra greats, but Raiders coach Ricky Stuart just might have the representative superstar he's been crying out for.
Stuart showed all the signs of a broken man when he fronted for a press conference after a loss to the Dragons in mid-August.
Wearing a shade of green darker than the lime he proudly wore in his playing days, the heartache and frustrating emanating from the former champion halfback was there for all to see.
"Now, every fan, every supporter, they can jam it into us and they can bag us for what it is, but until I get Origin players or internationals here around that group of blokes in there – I’ve got some brilliant young players coming through – it ain’t going to change," he said at the time.
"That’s my job, it’s as simple as that. We’ve got to cut to the chase and just be fair dinkum. Until I can recruit those boys, until we can grow our own, we're going to have to stick solid and keep working hard to get a win for this club."
Back in May, Josh Papalii wasn't one of those players.
A bona fide representative player with two Queensland jumpers and four Test caps to his name for the Kangaroos, the Raiders frontman was one of the NRL's best players in 2013.
But his rise was just as quick as his subsequent fall. Instead of running out for Tim Sheens' Trans-Tasman Test team in May, the 22-year-old instead went to the Queensland Cup to punch out some sorely needed minutes.
"I called it [a World Cup hangover] myself. There was no excuse about it – just poor form," Papalii told NRL.com.
"Sticky actually thought I didn't have enough rest [but] I asked to go back to Souths Logan just for that purpose, so I could start again. I can't complain, I'm here now. And go again on Saturday."
His mid-year self-demotion led to a spike in form that saw him picked in Mal Meninga's Maroons team for Game I against the Blues. But an ankle injury rubbed him out of Game II before he was overlooked in Game III, an omission the 22-year-old admitted left him heartbroken.
"I played the first one, got injured [before] the second one, came back for the third one but obviously Mal stuck with the same team that played in the second game. I really wanted to play, but that happens," he said.
So after first being dumped by Sheens, then encouraged to play reserve grade by Stuart, and then being forgotten by Meninga, Papalii's 2014 season – and possibly his career – had arrived at an NRL crossroads.
"When I got dropped from the Raiders, it was pretty hard to take. I understand that I wasn't playing good and things off the field wasn't right, but there's no excuse for not performing on the field," he said.
"I guess I just opened up my eyes a little bit and I had to start from the bottom again and go back to Souths Logan and play the game there and go from there.
"I had to get some things right off the field. It was tough at the time but it taught me a different side of footy. You can have a lot of things at one moment and then you can lose it all really quickly.
"There's a lot of great players there who deserve this spot I have. But obviously Sheensy stuck with me and hopefully I can do the job for the boys and hopefully our team.
"I guess I had a bad start this year to the season. Finished off strong and to be named in the 24 was exciting. But to be in the 17 that's about to play against the Kiwis in the opener, it's really exciting. I can't wait."