Injuries were always going to play a major role in testing squad depth and determining the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.
One week in, the Blues may be forced to reshuffle their loose forwards after suffering multiple blows against the Hurricanes.
Spirits were high as the Blues trained at their Alexandra Park base on Tuesday following their opening-round 30-20 victory over the Hurricanes, but the combative nature of the New Zealand derbies is already taking its toll, with Tom Robinson and Blake Gibson absent from the squad and likely to miss Saturday’s trip to Hamilton to face the Chiefs.
Equally capable at lock, Robinson started in his favoured blindside flanker role against Hurricanes where he delivered another relentless shift but he is now awaiting scan results on a knee injury sustained on Sunday. Even if the injury is not severe, Robinson may not be risked at this early stage of the brutal 10-week derby competition.
Fellow flanker Gibson took a head knock and then came from the field with ice on his hamstring midway through the first half against the Hurricanes. Gibson’s absence from Tuesday training suggests the openside is unlikely to feature against the Chiefs, which could leave two starting spots to fill.
Fortunately for the Blues, if there is one area depth can cover injuries it is their loose forwards.
All Blacks flanker Dalton Papalii replaced Gibson against the Hurricanes and impressed by snaffling two turnovers while contributing to a sound team defensive performance.
The double injury blow could see the Blues promote Papalii into the seven jersey and recall Akira Ioane, who did not make the squad last week.
In naming his team last week Blues coach Leon MacDonald singled out Ioane as unlucky not to make the team, saying his skin folds were better than ever and noting he was pushing hard for his chance.
The door now appears to have quickly opened for Ioane to deliver his impact – either from the starting side, possibly on the blindside, or from bench against the Chiefs, with American international Tony Lamborn another option.
Likewise Papalii, should he get the nod to start alongside in-form No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, is ready to seize his chance to potentially challenge All Blacks captain Sam Cane, who missed the Chiefs’ loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin due to a back injury but is expected to return for the Blues.
“Every New Zealand team is going to be tough – it’s a derby out there – so the body is feeling it but I’ll nail the recovery and get out there,” Papalii said. “Getting those minutes and that first turnover really helped with my confidence throughout the whole game. I felt like I carried that through so hopefully I’ll carry that into this week.
“Around the flanker position in the Blues it’s bloody tough we’ve got so many good players. It’s healthy competition we’re all pushing each other.”
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Papalii has played three tests for the All Blacks – one starting, two off the bench – since debuting in late 2018. While a versatile prospect comfortable in all three loose forward positions, the 22-year-old has his eyes firmly fixed on the seven jersey.
“I want to be a true seven going forward. I don’t want to be a Jack of all trades master of none. I want to really push myself and dominate the seven position but at the end of the day if the six and eight jersey pops up and I get to start and I get the minutes I want then why not. The end goal for me is to win a championship with the Blues so the closer we get to that the more sacrifices I’ll make.”
Despite 62 penalties being handed out in the opening round, Papalii endorsed the policy of cracking down on the breakdown during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“I really enjoyed the rules. I felt there were more opportunities to go over the ball. You’re not milking any penalties you’re trying to steal it for counterattack so I think it’s actually given a bit of life to the seven position. For a while there they changed the rules and it sort of killed the seven role but these new rules it’s brought it back.”
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