Paulo, Papalii, Parra and what Canberra do now
PARRAMATTA might be in the doldrums right now, but landing Canberra prop Junior Paulo is a smart signing for a club that sorely needs some forward power.
Paulo, who previously played with the Eels from 2013 until midway through 2016, returns to the club after two and a half seasons with the Raiders where he became the Green Machine's most important front-rower.
There seems to be a perception surrounding Paulo that he is a player of limited minutes who can't have sustained impact over the full course of a match.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While his minutes are down from last season, due to Canberra's constant shuffling in the middle of the field, the 24-year-old has proven he's capable of being a team's top metre eater.
Last season, Paulo's best in first grade, the Samoan international averaged 54 minutes per game for Canberra and churned out an average of 129 metres.
To compare, Jordan McLean played for Australia after averaging 98 metres per game from 41 minutes per match. Reagan Campbell-Gillard did the same averaging 119 metres per game from 52 minutes.
With the departure of Paul Vaughan and the struggles of Shannon Boyd last season, Paulo emerged as Canberra's most important middle forward in terms of yardage and broke 150 metres gained seven times. Such was their reliance that a good game from Paulo went a long way towards earning the Raiders a victory.
This year, a stint on the interchange bench blunted Paulo's effectiveness somewhat but since returning to the starting side he's been in great touch again, running for 136 and 113 metres in the wins over Canterbury and Parramatta.
It is no coincidence that the Raiders breaking their duck in 2018 has lined up with Paulo's return to the starting side.
Parramatta desperately need more forward power - Nathan Brown is a fine player, but cannot carry the team every single week and the likes of Tim Mannah, Daniel Alvaro and Peni Terepo are honest grinders but lack the ability to truly dominate matches.
Kane Evans, a high-profile recruit from the Roosters this season, was meant to alleviate these issues but is yet to hit his stride.
Paulo is yet to hit his ceiling as a player, but even a meagre improvement would put him close to the top tier of NRL front rowers. He's also an excellent offloader, accumulating 10 already this year on top of a career best 45 last season.
Brad Arthur has proven himself adept in the past at extracting talent from unheralded middle forwards, with Brown a prime example. A player with Paulo's physical gifts and track record is an exiting prospect for the blue and golds indeed.
Canberra no doubt did all they could to retain Paulo, but his loss is a serious one. Losing Paulo and Paul Vaughan in a two-year period is a tough pill to swallow.
The Raiders now have some serious decisions to make with their other two major off-contract forwards, Shannon Boyd and Josh Papalii.
After a difficult season last year, Boyd is back to playing some of his best football. Boyd has averaged career highs in runs per match with 11.2 and meters per game with 108.
He is a valuable weapon for the Raiders, but the challenge for the former Australian representative is playing longer minutes - given his size and frame, such a task may be impossible.
Even if Boyd's minutes are capped at around the 40 minute mark, he is still a key retention for Canberra given the dearth of accomplished middle forwards on the open market.
Papalii is a very different story, and his play at the moment may give an indication of where his future lies for the Raiders.
The Queensland and Australian representative is the second longest serving player at the club behind Jarrod Croker and when in form there are few more destructive backrowers in the game.
Canberra do not long for edge backrowers - Elliott Whitehead has barely put a foot wrong since joining the club and Joseph Tapine improves with each passing week. For all three players to fit into the side, one must move to the middle and all have spent time there over the last three seasons.
The club tried to transform Tapine into a middle forward but it never quite took and Whitehead did a good job at lock towards the end of last season. But Papalii, who operated as a bench middle over the weekend, could be the one to make the move permanently.
Papalii made his return to first grade last week after a game in NSW Cup and was excellent off the bench at prop, running for a match-high 134 metres, his best return of the season, from 16 runs and barging over for a try.
The middle may be where Papalii's future lies. He has performed well in that capacity for Queensland and Australia in the past, but did not match those performances in his last stint there in the early stages of 2015.
Slotting Papalii in to Paulo's spot in the middle would, in theory, solve two of Canberra's problems. They could replace Paulo, their best metre-eater in the middle, and give Papalii a more prominent role.
Papalii has reportedly asked for $800,000 a season, a high price for an edge forward but one that a top class middle could easily demand.
Still only 25, Papalii's best days a footballer could still be ahead of him and now that Canberra has lost Paulo, finding a way to keep him should be their top priority.