Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your rugby journey?

My name is Isaiah Papali’I and I currently play for the Parramatta Eels in the NRL. This current season is my sixth year in the competition. I grew up playing many sports (soccer, tee-ball) but always knew my dream was to play rugby league professionally. I grew up watching NRL on TV and that is where my love for the game started. 

It was not until I was 11 when I had my first ever game of rugby league. My first experience was not the greatest, because I had never played a collision sport until then. I did not know what I was getting myself into. The opposition trying to run through you at full tilt - and on the flip side, when you have the ball, trying to smash you. I missed my first tackle and on my first run I got smashed, but it was a starting point for me and my journey.

I was introduced to Olympic weightlifting through CrossFit when I was 12. Not many people start that young, and people outside of my family were shocked when they heard I was lifting weights at such a young age. But for me it was fine, as long as I was performing the lift with the correct technique. Starting so young has helped me become who I am today. I can perform lifts in the gym with the correct technique, which allows me to lift more weight. 

Throughout my later years of high school, I jumped back into playing league after spending the majority of my high school years playing rugby union. I always knew that I wanted to play rugby league. The pathway that opened up for me was the Holden Cup with the Vodafone Warriors U20s, which was closely watched by NRL teams. 

In 2016, I was given an opportunity to represent my first New Zealand national side, the Junior Kiwis (U20s). That was my first taste of international action. I felt very privileged and surprised when I found out I was selected in the team, as it was my first year of playing for the Warriors U20s.

Since then, I have played six seasons in the NRL, which included four seasons being with the Vodafone Warriors and two with the Parramatta Eels. I have been fortunate enough to represent the New Zealand Kiwis twice and hope for many more matches to come.

What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with any of the photos?

I showed my current teammates and good friends. The photos showed my rugby life at Kellyville Park (our HQ) and Commbank Stadium (our home ground), and my time off (mostly golf courses). I wanted to show a reflection of what my daily life is like, whether it is training, my game day preparation, or even just a day off. 

I showed our pre-game walk before our mid-year Test Match against Tonga. The walk is always a scheduled thing for the team, making sure we all get out of our accommodation and get some fresh air as a team before everyone gets their own time to go away and prepare for the game. We always have a few fun games along the way, keeping it chill.

One game at the Commbank Stadium was against the South Sydney Rabbitohs. It gives me goosebumps thinking back to it. The atmosphere in that stadium is crazy. It feels like the fans are right there beside you because of the stadium design and how compact it is. This stadium is my favourite pitch to play on.

And wherever the camera is, you will find Makahesi Makatoa and Dylan Brown right in front of it. If they were not players, then I think they could potentially have a career in modelling!

What does rugby league and playing for New Zealand mean to you? 

Rugby league means a lot to me. It has taught me many life skills that I believe will translate into any line of work – giving me a work ethic, social skills, and discipline. Representing New Zealand is something I can never get used to. It is an honour and privilege to be given the opportunity to do such a thing and it is something I will never take for granted. Growing up you idolise players, especially New Zealand players that you can relate to and aspire to be like. Now to think I am in that exact place is crazy.

The feeling when I found out I was getting my first cap for New Zealand was surreal. It did not feel real. I had been in camp with the team, travelling in England for just over a month and was patiently waiting for an opportunity. Lots of family and friends sent through videos of love and support. It was a special moment for me.

Who are your inspirations?

Both my parents inspire me. My dad inspires me to be a better man every day and treat everyone the same no matter who they are. And my mum inspires me with the hard work and determination she shows when she puts her mind to something. She never leaves it up to someone else to do.

My mother played rugby union for Samoa and rugby league for New Zealand. Growing up I watched her play and I guess I fell in love with the sport without even realising at a very young age. Looking back, all I can remember about rugby league is being at our local games - not necessarily watching but just running around with other kids having a blast. 

What role does rugby league play in your community and country? 

In my community back home, rugby league is a place where you can not only enjoy sport itself but also build lifelong relationships and keep fit and active. 

As a country the sport plays a role in giving kids a dream to chase or something to look forward when they can see friends, family, or their idols play rugby league on the weekends. All the way from grassroots to international rugby league, people can gather and enjoy the sport as a community.

What ambitions do you have for the future?

My future ambitions are to continue to represent my country and leave the Kiwi jersey in a better place than it was before. Another personal ambition is to one day captain a team in the NRL and hopefully my country after that.

What do you think the future looks like for rugby league? 

I think the future for rugby league after the Rugby League World Cup looks very exciting because the world is going to be able to watch the amazing sport being played internationally after a long 5 years of waiting. Not only have the players been waiting patiently for the tournament, but more importantly the fans. Having the tournament back on after a few tough years is what we need.

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