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.
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.