Kiwis v Tonga: How leaving NZ Warriors helped shape forward Isaiah Papali'i into one of NRL's best

NZ Kiwis forward Isaiah Papali'i credits his move away from NZ Warriors to Parramatta Eels as the catalyst for his rise as a player, as he prepares for his second test appearance.

Papali'i, 23, departed the Warriors after the 2020 NRL season, reportedly taking a six-figure pay cut to move to Sydney with the Eels.

Isaiah Papali'i trains with NZ Kiwis.
Isaiah Papali'i trains with NZ Kiwis. Photo credit: Image - Photosport

But the move has been a success in every way for the young second-rower, as the Eels reached the NRL's semi-finals last season, defeated by eventual champions Penrith Panthers.

What's more, Papali'i scooped the Dally M positional award as the NRL's Best Second-Rower, as well as the Eels Player of the Year.

And speaking before Saturday's test against Mate Ma'a Tonga, Papali'i details how leaving his home comforts at the Warriors forced him to "grow up" and become one of the game's best.

"[I'm] not too different," Papali'i said. "In terms of the growth I've had over there, [it's] been massive. 

"More in the way I play and prepare has definitely changed. It took me to go over there to grow up and find my feet. 

"I'm definitely grateful for the opportunity Parra gave me. I guess everything happens for a reason and it turned out to be really good."

Isaiah Papali'i celebrates with David Fusitu'a for NZ Warriors.
Isaiah Papali'i celebrates with David Fusitu'a for NZ Warriors. Photo credit: Image - Photosport

Papali'i will start for the Kiwis, nearly four years after making debuting in a 34-0 victory over England in 2018.

The test will also be Papali'i's first match at Mt Smart Stadium since leaving the Warriors, with the significance in front of a home crowd not lost on him.

"[It's] pretty surreal coming back into New Zealand. Having the opportunity to play on home soil is something we don't take for granted any time, but especially after a long two years of having no international footy around."

Papali'i is just one of the exciting players named, amid a Kiwis class of 2022 packed with talent from the NRL's biggest clubs.

Winger Ronaldo Mulitalo, centre Marata Niukore, half Dylan Brown will make their starting debuts, while forward Moses Leota will come off the bench.

And with a spine also featuring Sydney Roosters star Joseph Manu at fullback, and Melbourne Storm pair Jahrome Hughes and Brandon Smith at halfback and hooker respectively, coach Michael Maguire's side doesn't lack star power.

"We've got tremendous talent and a lot of Kiwis to pick from," Papali'i continued. "Watching rugby league in general, myself, I always watch for the Kiwi boys and see how well they're doing.

"Leading into this, I was very excited to be part of it and catch up with everyone."

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