Josh Papalii. Photo: Melissa Adams
Josh Papalii thought World Cup selection for Australia was such a pipe dream earlier this year, he committed to playing for Samoa.
But strong endorsements from Canberra Raiders legends Mal Meninga and David Furner ensured his selection in the Kangaroos 24-man squad announced on Monday.
The Raiders back-rower intended to pay tribute to childhood friend and former North Queensland Cowboy Alex Elisala, who passed away shortly after representing Samoa against Tonga in April.
The 21-year-old was in the crowd at Penrith that night, and hearing the Samoan anthem clinched his desire to represent his parent’s homeland.
That plan has now been dashed, but Papalii will still be thinking about Elisala in the green and gold.
‘‘Alex will always be in our hearts. It doesn’t matter who I’m playing for, he’ll always be close to me,’’ Papalii said.
‘‘I would have liked to have represented Samoa in the World Cup, but being picked in the Aussie squad is just unexplainable at the moment.’’
The Auckland-born backrower made one of the most agonising decision of his career last year when he pledged his allegiance to the Kangaroos and Queensland.
His choice was vindicated with inclusion in his debut Kangaroos squad after breaking into the Maroons team for the last two games of this year’s Origin series.
The 21-year-old said he remains very comfortable with that decision, having moved to Brisbane with his family as a child. Clearly, he wants everyone else to move on.
‘‘These decisions were done a long time ago, I don’t want to bring them back up,’’ Papalii said.
‘‘Everyone makes their decisions, I’m just a little slower [at making them] than everyone else.
‘‘I’m happy with all the decisions I’ve made and I’ll stand by them. So will my family and mates, I’m happy.’’
Papalii has every reason to be after he was one of three uncapped players named for Australia, alongside Roosters premiership back-rower Boyd Cordner and Cronulla’s Dally M prop of the year Andrew Fifita.
A strong performance for the Prime Minister’s XIII in Papua New Guinea, watched by Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens, sealed Papalii’s selection.
Former Raiders coach and Kangaroos assistant David Furner pushed hard for his inclusion, while Queensland coach Meninga spoke glowingly of Papalii when asked by Sheens.
A stunned Papalii initially refused to believe he had been selected when informed by a Raiders official on Monday.
‘‘I’m in shock, some quality players missed out and I did not think I was going to make it,’’ Papalii said.
‘‘Making the 24-man squad doesn’t mean I’m actually going to play, I’ll be training and hope I get a game.
‘‘Even if I don’t play the experience of being with a team like that is enough for me.’’
Papalii has made his mark primarily as a strike back rower, but Sheens indicated he will be used mainly in the middle third.
Australia’s squad is stacked with a wealth of back row talent, but Papalii’s versatility convinced selectors to give him an opportunity.
‘‘The fact he can play edge, in tight and prop forward helped him,’’ Sheens said.
‘‘The back end of the squad, those young blokes in particular have to have a number of options in their game.
‘‘Mal used him in the middle in the state side, he handled that well and you don’t have as much decision making to do as you would on the edges.
‘‘At the moment we’re thinking about him in that tighter role as a 13 or prop, but he can be a strike player on the edges as well.’’
While Papalii is celebrating, Raiders teammate and 14-Test veteran David Shillington was a notable omission.
The prop was also dropped by Queensland after Origin I this year, and he’s keen to revive his representative career.
‘‘It’s disappointing, I just have to work hard and try and get back in there next year,’’ Shillington said.
Meanwhile, Raiders under-20 players Mitch Cornish and Patrick Mago were selected in the Junior Kangaroos side to play New Zealand at Wollongong's WIN Stadium on Sunday.
Australian squad for the World Cup: Greg Bird, Darius Boyd, Daly Cherry-Evans, Boyd Cordner, Cooper Cronk, Robbie Farah, Andrew Fifita, Paul Gallen, Jarryd Hayne, Greg Inglis, Michael Jennings, Luke Lewis, Brett Morris, Josh Morris, Nate Myles, Josh Papalii, Corey Parker, Matt Scott, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith (capt), James Tamou, Brent Tate, Sam Thaiday, Jonathan Thurston.