As far as hard luck stories go in rugby league, Steve Rapira has got one of the better ones.
A little over two years ago, he boarded a plane in Townsville and began the journey back to Auckland, where a three-year contract with the Warriors awaited him.
He was leaving a regular gig with the Cowboys, for whom he had played 27 games between 2009 and 2010, and coming home to New Zealand - and the prospect of playing NRL football alongside his brother, Sam.
February 2013 and the two Hamilton-raised brothers are yet to play a single first-grade game together - and worse still, the younger Rapira has seen his NRL dreams turn to tatters.
A full groin reconstruction in 2011 was followed by continuing issues with his ankle over the last season - limiting his first-grade appearances at Mt Smart Stadium to just nine games.
And the clock is ticking too for Rapira - with only one year left on his contract. The hard-hitting but humble 24-year-old knows his league career is at a crossroads.
"Personally, they've been a hard two years," he said. "I moved back from the Cowboys and I had a full groin reconstruction. That's a pretty huge surgery.
"I've struggled with my body, and form, since then. I never really got right."
Yet if there was any cause for Rapira to look forward to any period of his time with the Warriors, now would be it.
Named the captain of the Warriors first pre-season game last weekend, the second rower-cum-prop is looking as ready for action as any in the side after a tough pre- season. Rapira said he's not the only one tuned up, either.
"It's quite funny. I remember our first day of pre-season training, after our pool session, we got out and they took photos of us all," he said.
"We thought it was a bit strange. This week we got another series of photos done, and this morning we had before and after shots.
"It looks like a Jenny Craig ad for some of the boys. They've gone from big guts to having a few abs - it's definitely paid off."
Last night's clash against the Panthers in Hamilton marked a homecoming for the Rapira boys, who last played a game of league in their home town for the Waicoa Bay Stallions in 2005. Much has changed since, with Rapira learning about the world of professional footy the hard way.
He is aware that a big year could produce a return to Mt Smart past this season, or even a contract playing in Australia. Rapira won't let that bother him though. Make the team, he reasons, and the rest will sort itself out.
"At the end of the day, if you focus just on that, you're going to forget about the job at hand. That is getting in the team every week," he said. "If you get in the team every week, the other stuff will sort itself out. My main goal right now is trying to make that team for round one.
"If I can get a regular spot in the side - it doesn't have to be starting - but if I can find a spot in that 17, I'll be stoked with that. Play a few games, get some consistency and go from there. I'd love to stay, this is home.
"I'm feeling really good at the moment. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, but I'm feeling it's going to be a good year. It has to be."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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