WHEN you’re a kid, what is the definition of mateship? How about this – your buddy’s mum has permission to give you a thrashing when you play up.
That’s how close Brisbane neighbours Josh Papalii and Alex Elisala were.
“I grew up with Alex – when I first moved over from New Zealand,” says Canberra giant Josh, nursing a coffee at Canberra Airport.
“I only lived a couple of houses down from Alex and we were always getting in trouble, going to the same primary school.
“We were real close. I even got a hiding from his mum a couple of times.”
It’s not the way this interview was supposed to happen. We were supposed to meet atop Telstra Tower, overlooking Canberra, the previous week.
But schedules clashed. Instead, I encounter 20-year-old Josh and 18-year-old Anthony Milford on the way to their mate’s funeral. “I feel honoured to go up there and farewell my brother,” Josh says sombrely.
And this interview wasn’t supposed to be about this. Papalii has a conventional footy story to tell, the stock in trade of yarns like this.
Mal Meninga and Ruben Wiki fought over him when it came to his representative eligibility before he chose Queensland over New Zealand. He signed with Parramatta and reneged.
But today, that stuff just seems like – excuse the French – crap in comparison to what these boys have ahead of them. Yet it all interconnects in some way, it’s all part of the same feelings of belonging and identity and brotherhood that Josh will soon do a pretty good job of explaining.
Young rugby league players, he says, need more help.
“For us athletes, people don’t realise what we have to go through just to make the team,” says Woodridge-rased Papalii. “I actually think the NRL can do a bit better, just for the youngsters around (Holden Cup ) level.
“When disappointment comes from girls or alcohol or whatever, (they should know) there’s always someone who can help. We need more help with welfare, people visiting the boys away from the club itself and actually getting to know the boys on a personal level and seeing how they’re going.”
Papalii moved from Brisbane to Canberra three years ago, around the time Elisala shifted to Townsville. “It was hard,” he recalls. “I’ve done it for three years. I didn’t miss a day talking to my parents.
“They’ve moved down now. They were in Samoa, they moved to New Zealand (after which Papalii was born), then to Brisbane. I needed them (here). Mt little brother John, he came down for the Raiders as well.
“My dad came and lived with us and looked after us and started cooking for us. It was a bit hard because my mum was staying with my little sisters in Brisbane and my dad was with the boys.
“It didn’t feel right, them being separated. They had to make the call, they moved down, I’m pretty happy.
“But it is hard with young guys moving away and becoming a man at a very young age. It helps in a way but it doesn’t make it easy on the person and also the parents.
“Their child’s away playing footy and training and (they’re) not knowing what could happen. The senior players help the young players out a lot. We’re fortunate that we’ve got fellows like Campo (Terry Campese) and Whitey (Brett White) and (David) Shillington and Tommy Learoyd.”
It’s when I move onto what I think is a dry footy issue – World Cup eligibility – that Papalii tells of how he took his dad to the Samoa-Tonga Test to watch Elisala play.
And of how he’s going to wear the blue jumper in Europe later this year as a tribute to his fallen friend.
“I put my hand up for Samoa for the World Cup,” he says, gently.
“Seeing him play for Samoa determined what I was going to do, hopefully, come October.
“I was actually there. I took my old man and stood in a dark corner somewhere under a hoodie. It was awesome. It’s the pride of where you’re from, where your parents are from. It was emotional as well.
“Looking at the Australian team, I don’t think that will ever change. Not for a few years. To be honest I don’t see myself in an Australian jersey because of how good the team is but if I work hard, I don’t know where it will take me.”
Most people want players with a decision to make on their eligibility to pick the underdogs because it suits our narrow little world view. But Papalii says he’ll “always be a Queenslander”. It’s a matter of identity and family.
“The decision came down to where I’ve spent most of my life, where I started as a junior,” he said.
“Everyone was sort of pointing towards where I was born, New Zealand, but the effort that Queensland put in for the development of my footy, I felt like I owed Queensland back something in return.
“It was better for my family as well. I lived pretty much all my life in Queensland so I just felt Queensland was the right thing to do.
“I spoke to Rubes a bit about the New Zealand vibe. I knew what it was like, being Kiwi myself (yes, he said that – but you get what he means, right?).
“I guess it had to come down to what I really wanted in life and what I wanted to play. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around every day. I thought to myself, ‘this could be the one chance where I could make my family proud’.
“It comes down to what sort of guy I am. I’m very family-oriented and I had to make the call based on my family
“I don’t know how other guys do it but family means a lot to poly boys.”
Then there was his decision to join Parramatta – and his subsequent un-decision. After signing a reported three year, $1 million deal with the Eels, he decided to stay at Canberra until the end of 2016.
The NRL does not register contracts until after round 13 of the season previous to that covered by them, effectively giving players a cooling-off period.
“I came off contract and I got some interest from a number of clubs,” he said, when asked to recount the story.
“Parra stood out and came a bit harder than everyone else. Based on what was in front of me, I had to go. That’s what I made my decision on.
“We always knew there was a round 13 rule in play and I was only trying to look out for my family. I didn’t mean to offend any of the Parra’ supporters or the Parra coaching staff or players.
“Me and my manager knew what we were doing. Our first priority was to try and stay here in Canberra but Parramatta came through with a better deal and it was enough for what I needed for me and my family.
“Everything was taking its time. I just wanted to get it out of the way before the season started, you know?
“ I based my decision on what was in front of me, what was on paper, and my future for the next couple of years. Canberra came back with a deal that suited myself and my family and I stuck with it.
“I wouldn’t say it was well-sorted, well-looked after”
He has already copped some stick from fans over the reversal and wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more. “There was a trial, when I hadn’t confirmed myself in Canberra, a few Canberra fans were yelling some comments out.
“That won’t bother me. I know what team I’m playing for now and I’ve got some big boys there to look after me, keep me away from Fuifui!”
MoiMoi was on the other side on October 20 at Penrith when Josh Papalii watched Tonga take on Samoa. He had already made two of the most difficult decisions of his life based on his deeply-felt bonds. He was about to make another.
This is a story of a shared loyalty those of us who are not part of immigrant families dismiss all too readily. It’s a connection to where you were raised and – just as strongly – to where you are from.
And to who you were raised with, and where they were from.
“When the anthem was sung by the choir, it touched my heart,” Papalii says quietly. “I could see myself in that blue jersey.
“Then my close mate Alex passed away and it just determined it. If a close mate of mine could make Samoa then I could do.
“It comes from the love of your country and the love of your parents.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK