'Just give us the ball': All Blacks loosies set to justify selections
With captain Sam Cane out for the foreseeable future, Papalii was always a chance of starting in the major tests but with Ardie Savea also on deck, Papalii didn’t exactly have an unimpeded run to the openside flanker berth – especially when you factor in the relative strength of the loose forwards as a whole.
As it turns out, the two will combine in the opening Bledisloe Cup match of the year, with Savea slotting in at number 8 after playing on the flank against Fiji in the All Blacks’ final test of July.
While some players returning to full fitness have been released to their provincial sides for the opening weekend of NPC, Papalii has instead been entrusted to come out firing against the Wallabies – and coach Ian Foster has full confidence in the 23-year-old to stamp his mark.
“Dalton, I thought, was probably our form loose forward in Super Rugby,” said Foster on Thursday. “He played well in the first test, he then had a niggle which meant we had to take him out for two weeks. [He’s] training well, I think he deserves a chance.”
“If you look at his workload this year, he’s outstanding off the park, how he goes about his work,” Foster later added.
“We’ve certainly got a lot of work into him the last couple of weeks behind the scenes and had a camp last week and the Thursday’s training was pretty full-on and his goal was to get through that from a contact and a physical side. [He] did that well, came in this week and has just been 100 per cent all week.”
Foster indicated last month that Savea get an extended run at No 7, given he and Papalii are the only specialist openside flankers in the squad with Cane unavailable, despite the fact that Savea was primarily used in the No 8 jersey last year. Saturday’s match now gives him and his young understudy the opportunity to play together for the first time in their careers.
“Ardie, we were fortunate enough to be able to give him a good run at 7 for his first game back in a while,” Foster said. “[We] thought he went really well there but it’s a chance to put him back where, I guess, he’s played more rugby for us and we believe that’s where he’s going to influence this game better.”
“I’m just happy to be out there and having Pap there at 7 is pretty cool,” said Savea. “I’ve never played with Dalts before and been a fan of him, watching him play and do well in Super so really looking forward to just getting stuck into it with him and Aki at 6. We have a few laughs and stuff like that but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty stuff, we’ve got each other’s backs.”
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Savea added further praise on Papalii, with the Hurricanes captain suggesting his Blues opposite was excellent at pumping up his teammates and keeping the team focussed.
“His physicality, his presence, the work he does in the breakdown… He’s the guy that g’s the boys up,” said Savea. “He’s just come in and been himself in this environment. It’s been pretty good.”
The comments were reminiscent of stand-in captain Samuel Whitelock’s following the All Blacks 102-0 win over Tonga at the beginning of July.
“I personally saw some growth in some of the younger boys, someone like Dalton, was really good,” said Whitelock. “He played really well and got the boys in to deliver a quick message if we needed it.”
Saturday’s game will see the All Blacks roll out their fourth different loose forward trio in as many games but according to Savea, not a whole changes regardless of the personnel on the park.
“I’m really excited just to be out there and play but in terms of the loose roles, we stick to our roles in the team but we just add our individual flair and our strengths that we have,” he said.
“Obviously we have our kind of strengths and skillsets as players so we try and use that wherever we can in our team game and our team structure but yeah, just give us the ball. Give us the ball, we’ll run.”
Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm from Eden Park.
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