CROSS­ING JOR­DAN

HE’S ONE OF THE MOST DAN­GER­OUS TRY-SCOR­ERS IN RUGBY LEAGUE, YET JOR­DAN RAPANA’S CA­REER HAD TO BE RES­CUED OFF FOOT­BALL’S SCRAP HEAP. HOW? A LIT­TLE BIT OF FAITH, AND A COM­PLETE LACK OF FEAR WHEN HE STEPS TO THE LINE.

Inside Sport - - Team Previews - By MATT CLEARY

For the most part, the peo­ple of Merthyr Tyd­fil in the val­leys of south Wales didn’t care what was in Jor­dan Rapana’s books.‹ As ‹clean-livin’ and friendly as he and his‹ mate seemed, decked out in crisp, white shirts and black ties, with lit­tle name tags that de­scribed the 19-year-olds as “el­ders”,‹ there was lit­tle stom­ach for the pair’s talk of ‹Je­sus and the Holy Ghost, and the prophets, and God, and all the rest. Most folk‹ didn’t want to know.

But as they lis­tened to the boy speak, and clocked the fit­ness of him, his Maori com­plex­ion, his smil­ing eyes, they would ask if he was, by any chance, from New Zealand. He was! And there would fol­low talk of rugby and the All Blacks and Jonah and Zin­zan Brooke and Wales’ fa­mous win in 1935. And thus folk of dis­parate age and cul­ture would bond over pigskin. And while Rapana may not have made many con­ver­sions to the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter Day Saints, he con­verted plenty to the be­lief that he was a very nice young man in­deed.

Nine­teen-year-old Rapana, mean­while, was learn­ing valu­able lessons in life and in sales: each knock­back can beget op­por­tu­nity. From each set­back you can learn some­thing. You can grow. You can be­come.

Rapana’s known sev­eral set­backs in his foot­balling life­cy­cle, some by his own hand, some by his God’s, some by the West­ern Force. But each time he’s be­come and emerged, as if by chrysalis, into some­thing else.

In 2008, he broke out the but­ter­fly wings when he de­buted for Gold Coast Ti­tans aged just 18. He was an 80kg wing-boy who scored five tries in five games, in­clud­ing two on de­but. He fin­ished the sea­son in the un­der-20s team of the year. He had a man­ager. He was on TV. He was on the radar.

Then he quit to go on a mis­sion: two years in Eng­land and Wales, rid­ing bikes, iron­ing white shirts. He re­turned to flirt with rah-rahs. He poured beers in pubs, cut peo­ple’s hair. He thought about join­ing the cops. His path is not Footy Star Stan­dard.

But he kept on be­com­ing, be­liev­ing. And one day, sum­mon­ing the sales phi­los­o­phy of the oft-brushed Mor­mon – do your best, smile, think: what’s the worst that can hap­pen? – he asked the Can­berra Raiders for a job. And they gave him one. Then he busted out among the very best in the game.

‹

To watch Jor­dan Rapana play is to see a man im­mers­ing him­self fully in the con­test, in the fun of the game, the sweaty fun-ruck of the ac­tion. Footy is more than the sum of its parts, but in essence the game­play is fun: the con­tact, the phys­i­cal­ity, the pass­ing, the run­ning over and/or away from peo­ple. It’s en­joy­able for no rea­son most can ar­tic­u­late.

Rapana wouldn’t think of rugby league as per­for­mance art – few would, it must be said. Yet its play­ers are per­form­ers. And some are artists. And the best ones know they’re in a show and thus show off. Not in a wanky way, per se. It’s more about en­joy­ing one’s abil­ity, ath­leti­cism, and rip­ping off skills and deeds and der­ring-do. And do­ing it in front of peo­ple. Rapana loves that stuff.

Watch his eely way of mov­ing. Not a step so much as a swerve. David Cam­pese used to do some­thing sim­i­lar, sort of “turn” like a man on a mo­tor­bike, cor­ner­ing, burn­ing ’em. Rapana has a good, strong “carry” out of dan­ger and a cat­tle prod for a fend. He can leap high in the air, ride a man and mark. He can leap hor­i­zon­tally out­side the very planes of the play­ing field, and stick the pill so close in­side the dead ball line that it tests the very pix­els of the Bunker’s high-res screens.

The Ti­tans saw enough of his abil­ity in ’08 to give him a go in top grade against the high-fly­ing Roost­ers. It prob­a­bly didn’t hurt – they were run­ning last. In­juries galore. Five de­buted. Yet to pitch an 18-year-old into first grade, they saw what we see now – a to­tal lack of fear.

Con­sider the Roost­ers pack that sea­son: Mark O’Me­ley, David Shilling­ton, Wil­lie Ma­son, Craig Fitzgib­bon, Lopini Paea, Frank-Paul “The Wreck­ing Ball” Nu’uausala. And then put it to Rapana that an 18-year-old read­ing that list in the pro­gram could be a lit­tle a bit ner­vous. Rapana, like the com­puter, says no.

“I don’t get ner­vous at all,” he says. “I get that ques­tion a lot, par­tic­u­larly from my par­ents. But I don’t get ner­vous. I never have.”

Put it to him again that he wasn’t called “Ogre” O’Me­ley be­cause he can’t hurt you. Try­ing to tackle old mate Wreck­ing Ball or Big Willy on the fly would in­spire some trep­i­da­tion, surely?

He shrugs. “Mate, I dunno what it is. But I strug­gle to get ner­vous. It’s just my thing. I’m just happy to be out there in the best com­pe­ti­tion in the world. I just en­joy it and try to do my best.”

Rapana grew up in Porirua, out­side of Welling­ton, the fifth child of ten. In 1998, the fam­ily upped shop and ar­rived on the Gold Coast be­cause his old man Eli found work con­cret­ing. They were rugby peo­ple, had barely heard of league. But the rah-rah wasn’t strong on the Goldie and 13-man was the clos­est sport. Jor­dan went to school at Palm Beach Cur­rumbin State High, a noted league nurs­ery. And didn’t take it se­ri­ously at all.

“I turned into a bit of a Gold Coast ‘lo­cal’,” he smiles.

”I was surf­ing, skate­board­ing. All over the show.” Late in high school, though, a growth spurt. And he be­came good enough at footy to think of it as a ca­reer. “I thought I may as well have a crack. I need to make a liv­ing for my­self at some­thing. I seem to be de­cent at it.

“Plus, I’d been con­cret­ing with dad. I knew I didn’t want to do that.”

A door slid open: in his last year of high school, Cur­rumbin Palm Beach made the Ar­rive Alive Cup, got on TV. An­other door slid open: 2008 was the first year of the un­der-20s Na­tional Youth Com­pe­ti­tion. A cou­ple of clubs asked af­ter him. He stayed on the coast. Team-mates called him “Air Jor­dan”. He ran out in first grade. He starred. He mugged for the cam­era. And then he quit. And didn’t play in the NRL for six years.

When Jor­dan Rapana re­turned from Wales at the end of 2010, he came back not only with con­fi­dence in him­self, but with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the global reach of rugby union. Tens of mil­lions would watch the Six Na­tions. Wales seemed ob­sessed with it, as they are in New Zealand. And he be­gan to see a path.

“Grow­ing up in NZ, I dreamed of play­ing for the All Blacks,” says Rapana. “And com­ing back to Aus­tralia, I dunno, I just … I had a change of heart [about play­ing rugby league]. And I didn’t want to get to the end of my ca­reer and think I’d never given union a crack.”

He tri­alled with the Aus­tralian Sevens team and signed on for two years with West­ern Force. He was flogged in pre-sea­son and strug­gled. With fit­ness, with de­fen­sive reads, with all the bloody meet­ings. The 15-man game is in­fin­itely more tech­ni­cal. There are meet­ings about meet­ings.

Mainly he bat­tled against a “rat-shit run of in­juries”. He had a shoul­der re­con­struc­tion. And he didn’t make an im­pact. And if you’re on the pay­roll of a pro­fes­sional fran­chise and bring­ing noth­ing to the party but bills, you can be quickly su­per­flu­ous to re­quire­ments. And out the door he went at the Force.

“They were like, ‘Thank you for your ser­vices, lah-de-dah, we won’t be re­new­ing your con­tract.’ I was pretty up­set about it. And I had to pack up shop.

“I didn’t have any plans or teams go­ing for me. I was go­ing to move back to the Gold Coast, prob­a­bly get back into con­cret­ing with dad.”

While pack­ing, his phone rang: Steve Larkham at the Brumbies. Seems they were light on for backs. Matt Toomua, Adam Ash­ley-Cooper, Te­vita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua were with the Wal­la­bies. Jesse Mogg was in­jured. Larkham said they needed a bloke to come in for pre-sea­son and fill in shoes. Rapana was all over it.

“I had noth­ing else on,” he says. “I flew straight there and took it with both hands. Train­ing with the Brumbies was an awe­some op­por­tu­nity.”

For the princely sum of $500 a week, Rapana

“MATE, I DUNNO WHAT IT IS. BUT I STRUG­GLE TO GET NER­VOUS. IT’S JUST MY THING.I’M JUST HAPPY TO BE OUT THERE IN THE BEST COM­PE­TI­TION IN THE WORLD. I JUST EN­JOY IT AND TRY TO DO MY BEST.”

trained hard and well. He played all the tri­als. He thought he went well. So did the coach­ing staff. He was of­fered a one-year deal of about $80k. The Brumbies’ in­ter­na­tion­als came back. Rapana was the new guy, the fringe player. He was shuf­fled off to play club rugby with Can­berra Roy­als. He was played in the cen­tres where he tried to nut out the game’s com­plex­ity. He waited for an in­jury in a star-stud­ded Brumbies back­line. He sat in more meet­ings. And he pined for rugby league.

Then an­other door slid open, for over on Planet Rugby League, Can­berra Raiders out­side backs Blake Fer­gu­son and Josh Dugan were on a roof knock­ing back Bac­ardi Breez­ers and flip­ping the bird to their coach, David Furner. They were clever enough to take a photo and post it on In­sta­gram where it went vi­ral.

And Rapana saw an open­ing. Made a move. And changed his life.

Jor­dan Rapana didn’t have an agent in 2013. He’d had one, but old mate, prob­a­bly jus­ti­fi­ably, was fo­cused on money-mak­ers. Rapana was a code­hop­ping jack-of-all-trades-and-mas­ter-of-none. He was known as an ath­lete and a foot­baller but he didn’t have a “name”. They re­spected his work ethic and per­son­al­ity. But he was a hard sell. Per­cep­tion was re­al­ity. He wasn’t a pri­or­ity. So he made him­self one. And he fronted David Furner straight up.

“I ap­proached him and told him who I was,” says Rapana. “He said he’d known me from ’08. I said,

‘I just want an op­por­tu­nity. I’m not here for money. I see you guys are low on out­side backs. I want to come back to league.’

“The very next day he had a con­tract writ­ten up.” The Raiders, mean­while, thought they had a bar­gain. Good carry, good feet, good per­son, good fam­ily. And he wasn’t short on con­fi­dence. “There’s not many times you’ll get a kid ap­proach­ing you, look­ing for a game,” says Furner. “Not many kids would do it. It shows his per­son­al­ity. He’s ob­vi­ously con­fi­dent in his abil­ity. And he should be.

“But it wasn’t about ‘sell­ing’ him­self, it was just a chat. We’d ac­tu­ally had a bit of a heads-up about him from Dave Hamil­ton, our re­cruit­ment guy. I knew he was in the lo­cal sys­tem, play­ing rugby. We had noth­ing to lose.”

They plonked him into full­back with the Moun­ties. He killed ’em. By Au­gust of 2014, he was run­ning 157m out of full­back in Dar­win against Par­ra­matta. And he’s been killing ’em ever since. He’s added ki­los to that skinny winger’s frame and con­di­tioned his body to the bru­tal­ity of the Na­tional Rugby League. He’s been in­jury-free and played ev­ery game in the last two sea­sons. He reck­ons the six-year break from the game fresh­ened him and gave him per­spec­tive on life that some – Fer­gu­son, Dugan, Todd Carney, you could throw in Nick Kyr­gios – have not had.

“I was do­ing it all on my own,” Rapana says of ap­proach­ing Furner. “I had noth­ing to lose. What’s go­ing to hap­pen if I just go up to him and tell him who I am? If he doesn’t need me he’ll say no – sim­ple. It was win-win.

“Since the mis­sion and com­ing back from union, I try to make the most of ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. I play ev­ery game like it’s my last. I know what it’s like to not be in this en­vi­ron­ment. That’s my big­gest mo­ti­va­tor. And it’s helped me play my best footy.”

Rapana’s num­bers rank against any winger in the NRL. Last two years, he’s been top of the pops or near it in tries, line breaks, tackle breaks, run­ning

THE SIX-YEAR BREAK FROM THE GAME FRESH­ENED HIM AND GAVE HIM PER­SPEC­TIVE ON LIFE THAT SOME– FER­GU­SON, DUGAN, TODD CARNEY, YOU COULD THROW IN NICKKYRGIOS–HAVE NOT HAD.

me­tres, one-handed line leaps to touch down and score. He’s up there with Semi Radradra, Val Holmes (whom Rapana rates the most dan­ger­ous of his wing op­po­nents), Josh “The Beard” Man­sour, and Storm hell­cats Josh Addo-Carr and Su­liasi Vu­ni­valu. One of them. The best of his kind.

In 2016, when the Raiders were hum­ming and run­ning amok, it looked like they were hav­ing fun “play­ing” footy. The last-round game against Wests Tigers at Le­ich­hardt Oval, Rapana’s good mate, Joey “BJ” Leilua, threw a pass out of his very bot­tom that hit Rapana on the chest be­fore he raced off to score in the 52-10 romp. The Raiders of ’16 were party peo­ple. And rugby league was a happy place.

Last year, not so much. The 2017 Raiders were like dud sex – promised plenty, de­liv­ered a fizzer. Ask Rapana to dis­sect it and you’ll get an au­di­ble ex­ha­la­tion over the phone. “Mate, ah … I hon­estly don’t know,” he says.

“In 2016 it was like ev­ery­thing just came off. It felt like we didn’t have any­thing to lose. No-one re­ally ex­pected us to do much. So we just played off the cuff, which Ricky en­cour­aged. We’d throw the ball over our head and make it stick. Some of the tries were ridicu­lous.

“So maybe we thought it’d be the same, and just hap­pen. But that’s not footy. Close games in 2017 were our Achilles’ heel. We prob­a­bly didn’t pre­pare men­tally for arm-wres­tles. So many games we lost by less than four points. We were used to win­ning by 30.”

If a win­ning club is a happy club, one that loses with high ex­pec­ta­tions, that loses close games, that loses in Bathurst against Pen­rith when lead­ing by eight points with 90 sec­onds to go (let us never talk of it again) begets an un­happy club. Put it to Rapana that out­side look­ing in, the play­ers’ body lan­guage was so poor they looked like squab­bling si­b­lings, and he doesn’t ar­gue.

“Look, it was re­ally frus­trat­ing. Los­ing is, mate! But the most frus­trat­ing thing is that it was by one, two points, so many times. We lost in golden point four times in a row. From my per­spec­tive, you lose by 30 or 40, you’ve been tow­elled up by the bet­ter side. You weren’t good enough, pants pulled down.

“But los­ing by one point or a try, it hurts prob­a­bly 20 times more. And the other boys felt the same way. So when you’re los­ing, it’s go­ing to be an un­happy joint.”

Yet 2018, like ev­ery year, her­alds a new dawn. And though Josh Hodg­son’s in­jury won’t help, he could be back by July. And if the Raiders are, as usual, un­mo­lested by Ori­gin, and hum­ming along into the fi­nals, what a fil­lip he will be come Septem­ber.

“There’s plenty of hope,” says Rapana. “The only pos­i­tive from 2017 is that we had pretty much the same team. The same peo­ple made a pre­lim­i­nary fi­nal in 2016. That keeps me mo­ti­vated. We’ve trained re­ally hard and had a dif­fer­ent out­look to last year’s pre-sea­son. We know we have to make it hap­pen. We have to be­lieve.”

It can of­ten take an en­tire de­fen­sive line to cor­ral Rapana [above], who has ma­tured from the teen Ti­tan of '08 [above right] into a cap­i­tal favourite with right-edge mate Joey Leilua.

One of the NRL's most pro­lific in at­tack, whether fin­ish­ing, line break­ing or run­ning away [right to above left] ... but it came to naught in a dis­ap­point­ing 2017 cam­paign.

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