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'Learn to run again': The brutal injury, pay cut behind Parra's new cult hero

Long before Isaiah Papali'i was charging through right-side defences like they were made of rice paper, he had to learn how to run again.

Long before the emerging cult hero with fuzzy wuzzy hair gave Parramatta fans warm and fuzzies – on a bargain deal worth less than $200,000 a year – Papali'i's career was feared to be on the line before it had even started.

'He had to completely learn to run again'

As one half of the first mother-son combination to play NRL, Papali'i's "pram was always parked on the sidelines" of a rugby league field from the time he could lift his head.

As a 15-year-old, the budding talent who won weightlifting gold medals on the side had the world at his feet.

Until an ugly compound fracture of his leg had prospective NRL clubs fearing he would never truly realise his potential.

In one of footy's famed fate twists, Brisbane – who will do their merry best to contain Papali'i on Friday night – were well and truly ready to sign him seven years ago until the injury, which has been likened to that which ultimately brought former Bronco Jharal Yow Yeh's career to an early end.

"He had a very bad fracture and a plate put in his ankle," mum Lorina, the former Kiwi Ferns and Warriors second-rower tells NRL.com.

"It was his fibula that was fractured, and there was a plate put in.

"At that time the Broncos were looking at him but they dropped off after the injury, Isaiah had such a hard rehab.

"There was a lot of tears shed because you feel like the dream is over when you're injured in that way.

"He ended up going through a very hard rehab with a great physio, a friend of ours named Michelle Booth, she was the Kiwi physio for a long time.

"It was six months to a year really where he had to completely learn to run again. It was hard, solid rehab where he had to completely learn how to put trust in that part of his body, the bone had to heal. 

"Michelle mentored and counselled him, put him through the whole rehab process to come back from that when we weren't sure he would. She got him through it and got us through it as well."

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Isaiah Papali'i (@isaiahpapalii)

Twice the player at half the price

While Booth got Papali'i out the other side of such a debilitating injury at such a young age, it has been Brad Arthur and Parramatta that have got the best out of him.

Papali'i is understood to have taken a significant, six-figure pay cut in 2021 after signing a two-year Eels deal last October.

He stresses that he and the Warriors "didn't end on bad terms", after he was told midway through last year that he didn't feature in their long-term plans.

Papali'i's salary sacrifice to start over at Parramatta is doubled down by stunning individual numbers to start the season.

Papali'i down a shortside for the Eels

The 22-year-old goes into Friday's clash against Brisbane averaging exactly twice the run metres he churned out in 63 games for the Warriors, while his 23 tackle busts this season are just three short of his previous season best – 26 breaks from 23 games in 2019.

"If I want to be in the game for a long time I've got to take those leaps of faith and continue to look for improvement where I can," Papali'i says when asked about his pay cut.

"Coming here has been really enjoyable and hopefully I can keep trotting along.

"This is a simple game. We make it hard on ourselves sometimes, but it really is quite simple, for me anyway.

"Away from the field, it's preparation, my approach to the gym and just repeating it once you know what works.

Little Papa has his second for Parramatta

"Last year was tough for me. That was the first time I've played through that kind of uncertainty around my future.

"But I was still happy playing footy and living out my childhood dream, playing for the Warriors. Even though I didn't have a contract I was still happy.

"We didn't end on bad terms which I'm pretty happy with and that's important to me.

"We just agreed to part ways at the end of 2020, it was pretty mutual. It was time to move on for me to try and find something new."

Signed over the small screen

In the end, it took just one Zoom call for Arthur to have Papali'i calling Parra home.

He was first scouted for the Warriors system as a teen once his leg had eventually healed, rising as one of the club's brightest young forwards to New Zealand and Samoan Test honours in 2018.

But when the Kiwi outfit made it clear they were targeting a shake-up of their pack, Papali'i remained unsigned right through until the 2020 post-season.

For the nomadic Warriors last season, that meant a final two weeks in hotel quarantine in Auckland after five months away from home.

Which is when Arthur and Eels football manager Mark O'Neill popped up on the Richmond Rovers junior's Zoom screen.

Brown and Papali'i combine to get Parramatta on the board

"I was in the middle of my two weeks quarantine, that meeting definitely gave me something to look forward to," Papali'i recalls.

"Fourteen days doesn't sound long but when you're stuck in that room, man you look forward to anything!

"I had Adam Blair [retired Warriors forward] across the hallway from me and we'd talk it through, because I didn't know where I was going to land or where my future was going.

"He was reassuring me, telling me 'it's just the business side of things, you'll find somewhere'.

"We'd time our lunch so we'd open the door at the same time and say hello, then have these chats via text even though he was across the hallway. He was a great help for me.

"As soon as I had the chat with BA and Buckets [O'Neill], Parra was the one for me. It wasn't at the point where I didn't have any other options and I wasn't thinking that way because I'm still only 22.

"And as soon as I signed I knew I was starting all over again and working hard would get me to where I want to be."

Home is where the hard is

Concern around Papali'i's recovery from that broken leg all those years ago may have been misplaced, or at least that's the sense the longer Lorina talks about her son.

"He's really quite fearless and reckless, always has been," she says.

"He's so competitive, it doesn't matter what the price is for him to win, his body comes second a lot of the time."

Just a touch of pots and kettles, not least apples and trees there.

Lorina herself, after a 16-year career that ended in 2010, came out of retirement eight years later, at age 41, to play in the Warriors' first NRLW side three years ago after all.

"He's just rough and tumble, he'll play through broken bones," Lorina says.

"There was another moment when he was a kid, he was under five and he'd fallen over and kept telling us he had a sore wrist.

Second phase footy from the Eels and Papali'i steps his way over

"Mum and Dad kept telling him to harden up, it turns out he had a hairline fracture in his wrist and needed to be in a cast, but it didn't slow him down at all.

"He was just the kid that fell off everything but kept going anyway.

"It was a struggle just to get him to wear a mouthguard as a kid, let alone shoulder pads or headgear.

"I just want him to be able to play for a long time and have a long career.

"As a mother you want your son to walk off the field first. But my approach is 'yes please walk off the field in one piece', but I do love to see him roar, because that means he's enjoying his footy.

"And the best way to enjoy it is to win."

While Papali'i takes his rugby league cues from Lorina and husband Jerry, his long-term partner Elle Temu brings plenty of sporting credentials to the party too as a professional netballer in New Zealand.

Her own career was sorted before Papali'i's last season when she signed with the Auckland-based Northern Stars for 2021, leaving the high school sweethearts to confront a relationship that traverses the Tasman.

 
 
 
 
 
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"I think you always have to make sure to take care of your partner and decisions together," Papali'i says.

"She is just really supportive, which I am grateful for.

"It was pretty tough because she signed in Auckland first so we kind of knew we're going to have to do long distance.

"But it helped her being a sportsperson too and she supported my decision [to sign with Parramatta] 100 per cent and knew that we were chasing a dream, so it's sweet."

With the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble now open, Papali'i's family have already got their tickets booked and a maiden Bankwest Stadium visit locked in for June.

Until then Lorina will continue to compliment Brad Arthur's analysis of her son's game with her own, as she does each and every single week.

"It's been awesome seeing him really enjoying his footy," she says.

"That's all you want as a mum. As a family, we've always loved it. I send him videos and feedback after every game.

"I know Brad Arthur does all his analysis, but we love going over his games together, I'll work out clips and have a chat with him about how he's played. I didn't need to give much feedback after the Raiders game [last weekend].

"We're coming across for a home game in June. The plan is to meet the coach, meet the team and get to see the environment that makes him so happy. We can't wait."

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