Junior Paulo breathes in the Canberra country air, contemplates the 80 minutes between his side and a NRL grand final before declaring: “I’ve never regretted anything”.
Paulo always believed he’d be playing at this stage of the NRL season – only he thought he’d be doing it in different colours.
Flash back 10 months and 2016 held so much promise for Parramatta, so much so that Paulo and his then-Eels teammates dared to broach a premiership during pre-season meetings.
However, crisis after crisis swept through the club, pushing him 280kms down the Hume Highway to the nation’s capital.
First he received a slap on the wrist for turning out in a third-grade rugby union match in disguise.
But when he received a warning from police about consorting with criminals following an ill-fated night out at a casino, it hastened his exit from the Eels.
When Paulo posted a picture on social media of himself alongside a former bikie boss and alleged fraudster, it caught the attention of the NSW Organised Crime Squad.
Having already signed on with the Raiders for next year, he sought an immediate release and made a mid-season switch to Canberra.
While the saga blackened his name, he doesn’t look back with regrets.
“I was never on social media around that time, I was trying to stay away from it, staying away from the TV, the newspapers,” Paulo told AAP.
“I always had a lot of people say ‘I saw your face in the paper, I saw your face on TV’.
“Everything happens for a reason. If none of that had happened, I wouldn’t have come down the highway. I’m really grateful for everything that has happened and I’ve never regretted anything.”
The 110kg wrecking ball will appear next month in a Sydney court to answer road rage charges relating to an incident last October when he allegedly punched a fellow driver in the face. Paulo is disputing the charges and has flagged his intention to plead not guilty.
He has done well to remain focused on football despite the legal issues hanging over his head.
Raiders boss Don Furner says escaping the fish bowl existence of Sydney has helped him and isn’t afraid to predict representative honours are on the horizon for the 22-year-old.
“He and his partner have realised what an easy place this is to live – the traffic, the childcare facilities, the schools, the roads,” Furner said.
“Those things that might be boring to an 18-year-old, they’re important when you’re a parent. He’s settling in really well. He got through his first winter so his second winter will be a lot easier.
“He’ll do a pre-season with us and he’ll be fitter next year – look out!”