Papalii at the front of queue for Kiwis
Josh Papalii at Raiders training this week. Photo: Melissa Adams
The bitter stoush between Josh Papalii and Paul Gallen looks set for an encore next month, with New Zealand team manager Tony Kemp declaring Papalii ''at the front of the pack'' for his first Test jersey.
Papalii's effort to unsettle Gallen during Canberra's 34-16 finals defeat of Cronulla has not gone unnoticed by Kiwi selectors.
NSW skipper Gallen accused Papalii of a ''dog shot'' after they waged war against each other at Canberra Stadium last week in one of the most fiery individual clashes of the year.
The deeper the Raiders progress into the finals, the shorter the odds become of Papalii performing the haka in Townsville against Australia on October 13.
And staring him down will be Gallen, the old bull hell-bent on putting the young bull back in his pen.
''He only just missed out on the Anzac Test, but at the moment the way he's playing he's right at the front of the pack,'' Kemp told The Canberra Times yesterday.
''Selectors have him in their reckoning at the moment and as long as they continue their form - and I think Canberra is a real good chance of winning this weekend - you'll probably see Josh running around in Townsville.
''It's done his reputation no harm whatsoever to stand up to a Cronulla pack not only with Gallen in it, but Jeremy Smith and the like.
''It's good to see someone of Josh's calibre and, being such a young bloke, not take a backward step. It's something that the Kiwis were really impressed with.''
Still just 20, Papalii was shellshocked at the attention his battle with Gallen received after Canberra increased its winning streak to six against the Sharks.
As a result, coach David Furner has placed a media ban on Papalii ahead of tomorrow's semi-final against South Sydney.
Papalii's crunching defence and aggressive running means he has been regularly compared to Raiders great and New Zealand legend Ruben Wiki.
''The first time I saw Josh play, he was so similar to Ruben - the lines he ran and even the way he looked, it was exactly the same,'' Kemp said.
''He and Ruben have really hit it off, they stay in regular touch and Ruben sends regular text messages to him before games wishing him luck. He's a Ruben Wiki clone, but Josh will make his own name, he's going to write his own story.''
New Zealand Test coach Stephen Kearney must have been rubbing his hands with glee as Papalii stood toe-to-toe with one of the key members of Australia's pack.
''He didn't back down which as a young kid in his position [is impressive] when you've got the NSW captain constantly snarling at you,'' Kearney said yesterday.
''That's footy, everyone was talking about it after and during the game, and I thought it was great.
''We've got a fair few [second-rowers] there, but Josh is young and has a really bright future ahead of him in a Kiwi jumper, and he's well in calculations I can guarantee you that.''
Queensland coach Mal Meninga attempted to convince Papalii to pledge his allegiance to the Maroons, having played most of his junior football in Brisbane.
But Papalii has committed to the Kiwis in a huge boon to their international game, given Kiwi James Tamou's decision to play for NSW this year.
Kearney has discussed the situation with Papalii, but insisted he left the decision completely in the hands of the Souths Logan junior. ''I don't want to be pushing players and telling them to play for New Zealand, they have to want to play for New Zealand,'' Kearney said.
Papalii's strong bond with his childhood hero Wiki helped the Kiwis' cause. ''Their characters are very similar, very quiet and assuming but gee, they pack some heat,'' said Kearney, who played many Tests alongside Wiki.