Paulo has nothing but respect for Papalii, the 28-year-old he hailed ”the best prop in the game”, while also admitting the World Cup tour was one of the many wake-up calls he had during a rollercoaster career that has led to his Origin debut.
“I still remember that World Cup, I came back, we were supposed to have three weeks off but ‘Sticky’ [Stuart] made us start training the next day,” Paulo, one of three NSW debutants, told The Sun-Herald.
“I got out to 139kg for our last game for Samoa against the Kangaroos in Darwin.
“It was a big turning point. We all realised how fortunate we were to be in the position we were in and the professionalism it takes to be a consistent player in the game.
“We still have the odd joke [about the World Cup]. We’ve both come a long way since then. Everyone reaches a point when they need to turn themselves around and get themselves back up and I think we’ve both done that really well.”
Paulo generated plenty of negative headlines during 2016. First he was busted playing third-grade rugby disguised in headgear, then famously posed for a photo at The Star. He was later issued a police warning for consorting with criminals.
“I have had my share of negativity, but with every negative there comes a positive,” Paulo said. “If it wasn’t for those occasions, I wouldn’t be here where I am. I could have easily derailed, shut up shop and maybe even gone away from the game.
“But the people I’ve had around me and the level of support has been second to none. My family and parents have been a huge support, and Brad [Arthur] and Sticky played a massive part in turning my life around.”
Paulo has been excellent for Parramatta. His starting front-row combination alongside Reagan Campbell-Gillard was the best in the game for a lot of this NRL season.
Paulo, 26, regards his Queensland opposite as the superior front-rower.
“In my opinion, [Papalii] is the best best prop in the game. I still keep in contact with him and his family, and going into this game we’ll know what to expect,” Paulo said.
“He’s been an enforcer for Canberra all year. Being able to go up against him is a challenge I’ll look forward to. We’ll always be friends, but once we get across that line we’ll look to do our best for our states.”
Paulo told the Herald last year how he plastered the same three photos of his two eldest children, Mario-Cade and Rosalina, as well as wife Mele, on his locker before every game. He will do the same at Adelaide Oval. He was forced to reprint two of the photos last year after he left his car at the Eels training base, only for it to be stolen as he attended hospital for the birth of the couple’s third child.
Paulo cannot wait for Wednesday. He’s hungry for all the right reasons.
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Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.