Former Warrior Isaiah Papali'i named in second row for fans Team of Year

Isaiah Papali’i – the man the Warriors tried to turn into a middle forward – has been selected by NRL fans in the second row in the Team of the Year.

The 22-year-old – who has been a hit in the Parramatta Eels’ backrow this year – is one of four Kiwis in the select side, alongside Roosters centre Joey Manu, Storm hooker Brandon Smith and Panthers prop James Fisher-Harris.

Papali’i topped the annual NRL fans poll as the best recruit of the 2021 season with 35 per cent of the vote, was voted the best second rower – ahead of Titans’ $1 million man David Fifita – and was runner-up in the most improved player category (13 per cent), behind Melbourne Storm back Nicho Hynes.

His selections vindicates Papali’i’s decision to take a reported $200,000 pay cut and leave the Warriors – his hometown club – for the Eels.

The Warriors purportedly saw Papali’i as a loose forward, playing in the middle, whereas the dual Samoa and New Zealand international saw his future in the second row.

It was a big move for an Aucklander, who made his NRL debut in 2017 as an 18-year-old and whose mother, Lorina Papali’i, has played for the Kiwi Ferns and the Warriors’ women’s side.

However, Papali’i was an instant hit at Parramatta, initially as a bench forward in the first two games before starting 18 consecutive games on the edge.

An Eels injury crisis meant he has had to play the last two matches at prop. He is slated to start in the front row again on Saturday against the Storm in Brisbane, where he will go head to head with Manly’s veteran Kiwis enforcer Jesse Bromwich.

Papali’i has seven tries in 22 matches this year – including a double against the Raiders in April.

The former powerlifter is fourth on two important NRL statistical charts – post-contact metres (1308) and tackle breaks (99), 10th for offloads (29) and 15th for most tackles (713).

He is averaging 147 metres per match and has a 93 per cent tackle completion rate for the sixth-placed Eels, who seem assured of a finals place.

Parramatta captain Clint Gutherson told that Papali’i “has been great for us since day one, and ever since that first training session you got to see what he was about.’’

Gutherson said all Papali’i’s hard work “doing the extras [and] getting his body right’’ had paid off and he praised his willingness to play in either the second row or middle.

“He's been one of our best every single week till this date and I'm sure he'll keep striving to be better there now in that front row.

"He really got us forward on the weekend. Just the way he goes about his business on and off the field, it's a full credit to where he is at as a player and he's only going to get better from here.’’