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'Because the All Blacks skipper's in the 7, you can fall and be forgotten': Under-the-radar Blues flanker pushing for a more prominent All Blacks role

By Tom Vinicombe

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When Richie McCaw wore No 7 for the All Blacks, there were other openside flankers from around New Zealand who, despite playing out of their skin week-in and week-out, rarely had a chance to pull on the black jersey.

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The likes of Marty Holah, Daniel Braid and Craig Newby regularly impressed at Super Rugby level but amassed just 17 starting appearance for the NZ national side between them.

With Sam Cane taking over from McCaw as both the long-term No 7 and, following Kieran Read’s retirement, the full-time captain, his compatriots will likely find their pathways to wearing No 7 for the All Blacks similarly blocked.

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Ardie Savea, arguably the country’s best player in recent years, has been moved around the backrow and now seems destined to play at Number 8 should he wish to regularly start for the national side.

Other openside flankers around the country may find they also need to re-invent themselves if they want to have any hope of running out in a black jersey while Cane holds down the No 7.

Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Super Rugby centurions James Parsons and Bryn Hall suggested that one player who deserves greater chances in black is Blues flanker Dalton Papalii – a man who’s more than capable of slotting in across the backrow.

“I’d like to put Dalton Papalii in the conversation for a bench spot because he can cover 6, 7 and 8,” said Parsons, a former All Blacks hooker.

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“Sometimes he can be a bit forgotten about because he wears the 7 in the Blues team but he can play other roles and I think, sometimes when you wear the 7 in Super teams, it’s just because the All Blacks skipper’s in the 7, you can fall and be forgotten. As poor Ardie’s found out as well – and I suppose that’s why he plays a little bit more at 8.”

23-year-old Papalii is now in his fourth season with the Blues, having debuted for the Auckland-based side in 2018.

That same year, Papalii was called up by the All Blacks for their end of year tour and went on to make two appearances, against Japan and Italy. Further tests followed in 2019 and 2020 but stiff competition from other loose forwards around the country has severely limited his minutes for New Zealand.

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A few more performances like what Papalii put on the park in Saturday evening’s loss to the Chiefs won’t harm his chances of greater test opportunities in 2021, however.

“I think he was just a freak on the weekend,” Parsons said. “21 tackles, 4 turnovers, 1 lineout steal – sometimes you can forget that Dalton’s a genuine lineout option. He’s a power athlete. He’s explosive so he can play a 6 and an 8 role in that lineout space. He can play a 7 role because he’s great over the ball. Six carries for 36-odd metres.

“I know I’m trending down a Blues line here. But don’t forget about Dalton in that space, especially on the bench.”

Hall, who represented the Blues for a handful of seasons before shifting south to the Crusaders in 2017, was equally full of praise for the 23-year-old.

“What I love about Dalton, [is that] he’s just a big-time player,” he said. “There are big-time moments in game when you talk about influencing games and you talked around the four turnovers but it’s the timing of those turnovers, when he’s winning them.

“Sam Cane’s been doing it for years and he’s captain of the All Blacks but … the thing I love about Dalton is his ability to have those big impactful moments time and time again.”

“And he’s got no fear,” added Parsons. “He’ll go for the big play and I think that’s what all great players will do, they will always go for the big play. There’s no fear of giving the penalty away – he wants to be that man in the arena. Sort of like how Richie Mo’unga goes ‘I walk towards that pressure’ – Dalton’s of that vein. He wants that pressure, he wants the big occasion, he wants that moment and he wants to be the guy to do it.

“But yeah, Dalton just needs to be remembered. Especially in a bench role … He can play a great bench role because of his versatility.”

While Papalii has previously spoken of his desire to own the No 7 jersey despite his obvious versatility, ousting both Cane and Savea from the All Blacks’ starting lineup would require as much luck as it would outstanding performances from the Blues utility.

A spot on the bench, on the other hand, is an entirely achievable outcome for the 23-year-old.

Papalii will lock horns with Savea and Hurricanes tyro Du’Plessis Kirifi – who was a late call-up to the All Blacks last year – in this Saturday’s match at Eden Park.

Another stellar performance from Papalii will be a must if the Blues are to get their season back on track following losses to the Crusaders and the Chiefs over the past two weekends.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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'Because the All Blacks skipper's in the 7, you can fall and be forgotten': Under-the-radar Blues flanker pushing for a more prominent All Blacks role

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