Isaiah Papali’i and James Gavet’s journey from babysitting to NRL teammates has been more than 10 years in the making.
“I used to tell him off, now he folds me in half at training, it’s been crazy to watch him grow,” Gavet said of his 19-year-old teammate who used to run around the streets of Auckland with his younger brothers.
Papali’i is entering his second year with the Warriors and has been the talk of the pre-season from fellow players and coach Stephen Kearney.
The edge forward made five first-grade appearances last year and is looking to establish himself as a regular first grader this season following good trial form.
If he does manage to force his way into the round one team he will likely line up alongside James Gavet who is looking to make one of the front row positions – left vacant by the departures of Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman – his own in 2018.
But Papali’i and Gavet’s story goes back a lot further than last year when Papali’i entered his first pre-season as a “bright eyed and bushy tailed” teenager, in Gavet’s words.
The former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Wests Tigers and Brisbane Broncos player has known Papali’i since he was a child.
Almost 10 years his senior, Gavet says it still surprises him to see how far then young back-rower has come in his short time as a professional.
“I always knew he was a special talent but it’s still a bit weird to see him out here with me,” Gavet said.
“I’m personally really proud of him. I know his mum and dad really well and I remember watching him as a little kid and telling him off, now he’s taking me out for beers. It’s crazy.”
Despite impressing in both trial matches however, the 19-year-old faces some tough competition for a starting spot in a position the Warriors have genuine depth in.
But Gavet is backing his longtime protégé to get there sooner rather than later.
“I think he has really found himself this year,” he said. “He understands what works for him and is beginning to figure out some things that might work for guys like me and Adam Blair might not be best suited to his game, and the footwork and offload stuff is probably better suited to his skill set.
“Come next year at least, he’ll be an NRL starter I’m sure of it.”
The man himself was happy to bide his time behind the likes of Tohu Harris, Simon Mannering and Gavet and soak up all that they offer.
“I felt a lot more comfortable coming into my second pre-season, the nerves have certainly calmed down a bit,” Papali’i said.
“I use his (James Gavet) experience a lot, just feed off him and Simon Mannering trying to learn as much as I can at training so that when I run out on the field i’m not too flustered.”
“Playing out on edge is my role and I’m competing with some pretty decent players so I’m just trying to do everything I can to edge my way in there.”
“It’s good to have competition. When my time does come I’ll be ready.”
Kearney said Papali’i was one player who had “really put his hand up” throughout the pre-season.
The Warriors will take a squad of 20 over to Perth on Monday before their round one clash with South Sydney on March 10.