“It said a lot about his character, for someone who had done so much in the game, and in union as well, and to come and see two young kids starting their NRL journeys … it speaks so highly of who he is as a person. Nobody can fault how he plays and carries himself as a footballer.”
Papalii went on to play for Australia in the World Cup final against Williams and New Zealand in front of nearly 75,000 fans later that year.
But Papalii continued to get butterflies every time he saw Williams – including in 2018 before a captain’s run at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. Again, he got the photo to prove he’d met his hero. He even included the hashtags ‘starstruck’ and ‘goat’ in the caption.
“The Auckland Blues had just finished training and a lot of us had seen Sonny in a car on the way out. We were all on the bus up against the window and waving like little schoolgirls,” Papalii said.
“I’m not sure who sent a text, but Sonny came back and took a few photos with us. I think most players are still starstruck by him. I still am. It will be good to see him back in the NRL.”
Papalii even quipped he might ask for another photo. “I might, bro,” he quipped.
Williams has been named in the No. 17 jersey for what is looming as his first NRL game in six years. The 3000 locals at GIO Stadium will love him. But they love ”Papa” more. In fact, most players in the NRL would now arguably find it less daunting running at Williams than Papalii.
Canberra have two less days to prepare for their grand final rematch against the Roosters, and were only starting video on the premiers late om Tuesday. If Williams does get the nod, Papalii says they will not take him lightly.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, and Sonny will be someone we need to look out for,” Papalii said. “He’ll still be dangerous. He’s 35 now, but he’s still got a rig like he’s 21. Sonny’s still got it.
“After last year’s Grand Final loss, you start the year off by looking at when you play the Roosters. They’ve been the best side for the last five or so years. You always want to play against the best and make sure when you’re up against the Roosters you’re putting in your best game.”
Papalii, now 28, featured in one of the greatest scenes in the NRL season to date when he raced 60m and ankle-tapped Gold Coast playmaker Jamal Fogarty in an epic try-saver last Saturday week. Raiders coach Ricky Stuart declared afterwards: “Papa will go down as one of our greatest players ever when he retires. He is one of the boys’ favourites. They love playing with him.”
Papalii said of his long-term contract situation: “We’re trying to sort out some little things. I still have two years here before doing the extension. We’re considering family who are back up in Logan [Queensland], and we just have to make sure everything matches up.”
Papalii can not wait for Saturday. He’ll pack his camera before his boots.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.