Warriors back-rower Isaiah Papali’i was barely out of his teens when he was handed his first New Zealand Test cap.
The son of long-serving Kiwi Ferns rep Lorina Papali’i, Isaiah was a rugby union and rugby league star while attending Mount Albert Grammar School. He chose the 13-a-side code, debuting for the Warriors’ NYC side and the Junior Kiwis in 2016 while still only 17 years of age. Papali’i would go on to represent the Junior Kiwis again in 2017-18.
The 18-year-old received a surprise interchange call-up from incoming coach Stephen Kearney for the Warriors’ season-opening NRL clash with Newcastle in 2017. He returned to first grade for four late-season appearances off the bench.
Forging a regular second-row berth for the finals-bound Warriors in 2018, Papali’i played for Samoa in the mid-season Pacific Test against Tonga – but there were many more highlights to come. Mum Lorina featured for the Warriors’ women’s team in their historic NRLW encounter with Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium – just before Isaiah turned out for the club in its finals exit at the hands of Penrith at the same ground, his 20th appearance of the season.
Less than a month after captaining the Junior Kiwis against the Junior Kangaroos, he followed in Lorina’s footsteps by coming off the bench in New Zealand’s 34-0 win over England in the third Test at Leeds. Papali’i had the honour of kicking a late conversion on debut in the one-sided encounter.
Lorina and Isaiah are New Zealand’s only mother-son combination to represent the Kiwi Ferns and Kiwis.
Papali’i missed just one game for the Warriors in a trying 2019 campaign. He was named in an extended Kiwis squads for the mid-season showdown with Tonga and the post-season schedule against Australia and Great Britain but was not called upon by New Zealand coach Michael Maguire for any of the four Tests.
After 15 appearances for the Warriors in 2020 – taking his NRL total to 63 games – Papali’i was released by the club and took up a two-year deal with Parramatta Eels.
The move rejuvenated the tyro’s career. In sensational form as soon as he pulled on the blue-and-gold jersey, Papali’i missed just one of fifth-placed Parramatta’s games, was named in the Dally M Team of the Year, received the VB Hard Earned Player of the Year award and the Ken Thornett Medal as the Eels’ official Player of the Year – as well as being widely regarded as the best buy of the 2021 season. Papali’i also doubled his NRL career tally with seven tries, and finished third in the competition for post-contact metres and sixth for tackle breaks.
Unsurprisingly, the 23-year-old earned a spot in the Kiwis’ wider squad for the 2022 World Cup, capping one of the great individual success stories of the rugby league year.