Some of the questions surrounding who will fill the All Blacks’ loose forward vacancy may have been resolved.
Head coach Alama Ieremia was unable to confirm Papali’i’s selection, but hinted at the young star’s possible inclusion.
“There is a lot of talk around sevens in the country and when you look at his stats, I’ve never seen a seven that tackles the way he does. 22 tackles, 24 tackles and 20 tackles, for three games in a row.
“That speaks volumes for the type of defender he is, but I’m very proud of him because he’s also in charge of our defence and when he speaks, he speaks. Most importantly, his actions speak more than anything else.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the way he’s developed as a seven this year, forced through injury obviously, but different parts of his game, offloading, the tries that he set up today and his link play.
“The funny thing is, he’s still very young. So he’s got a long way to go.”
Papali’i has held down the Auckland No. 7 jersey after a season-ending quad injury to captain Blake Gibson, and may have now worked his way into the black jersey through injury after All Blacks incumbent Sam Cane went down with a fractured neck during last weekend’s Rugby Championship victory over South Africa.
The Saint Kentigern College product has been in rare form with Auckland this season, tallying upwards of 20 tackles in his last five matches including a monstrous 29-tackle effort against Wellington.
On Sunday’s victory over North Harbour – a victory that secured Auckland’s place atop the Premiership standings at the end of the regular season for the first time since 2007 – Papali’i finished with 22 tackles and three turnovers won. The dynamic forward also made an impact with ball in hand, picking up 53 metres with ball in hand and showing great skill to set up a try for skipper TJ Faiane.
Papali’i credits his own development and Auckland’s turnaround to Ieremia and Auckland’s new coaching staff including former Saint Kentigern College coach Tai Lavea, former All Blacks head coach Sir Graham Henry and former All Blacks loose forward Filo Tiatia.
“I’ve learnt heaps, hearing these coaches were named for the campaign, everyone was talking about how we’re going to step forward and I think they’ve done a bloody good job to be honest,” Papali’i said.
“To see where we were last year, everyone had their heads down and we were about to get relegated, to where we are now, it just goes to show these guys are putting a massive effort in.”
Papali’i cited the teachings of forwards coach Tiatia, a former teammate of Ieremia’s with the Hurricanes and the All Blacks, with improving his game.
“I felt like I’ve learnt a lot off Filo, the forwards coach,” Papali’i said. “But around my game, I knew the qualities of a seven, tackling and stuff, but they were showing me different ways of how to get to rucks and stuff like that.
“I think I’ve learnt massively from these coaches.”
North Harbour head coach Tom Coventry – who will join the Blues as forwards coach next season – heaped praise on Papali’i post-match.
“I think Dalton, first and foremost he was in the thick of it today,” Coventry said.
“He’s good in the close-quarter play, I think close to the goal line he’s one of their [Auckland’s] better defenders. He gets himself down nice and low, comes forward off the line well. He’s pretty accurate with his defensive work. Gets back to his feet quickly and is back in the game a lot and he complements a lot of the line breaks that are made.
“He’s often on the shoulder and he’s linking and lurking around the support play. I think he’s a big prospect and he’s a good size. He’s physical and he’s got lineout ability as well. He ticks a lot of boxes.”
It’s believed that Papali’i’s performances for Auckland will see him tick one of Steve Hansen’s 51 boxes after the All Blacks head coach announced a bumper squad would be taken for their upcoming trip.
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