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'We've choked in the finals': Dalton Papali'i's take on Blues being top seed

By Ned Lester
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Blues have staked their claim as Super Rugby Pacific’s best team with their 31-27 win over the Hurricanes in Auckland over the weekend.

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With three rounds remaining in the competition’s round-robin, it looks as though the Auckland side have timed their run-up perfectly and are peaking at the right end of the season, having lost to the Hurricanes back in round three.

But All Balck Dalton Papali’i was sure to measure expectations and stay grounded when speaking to media following the contest that saw them claim the top spot on the table.

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“I’ve been here before, and we’ve choked in the finals. Everyone’s going to be at us,” he said.

“But there’s so many teams in this competition that I think everyone’s being hunted and we’ve got to try to win each week by focusing on the day, and that means training all the way Monday, Tuesday, all the way through to game day.”

The Blues finished atop the Super Rugby table in 2022 with just one loss to their name during the regular season, but went on to lose to the Crusaders in the final as the Canterbury side claimed their sixth title in as many years.

Papali’i is eager to take the lessons from that experience and ensure they go one better in 2024.

The Highlanders, Crusaders and Chiefs all stand in Papali’i and company’s way of a top seed that would secure them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This weekend will see Eden Park host a Blues contest against a Highlanders outfit fresh off a historic win over the Crusaders under the roof in Dunedin.

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A standout performer in that game was winger Timoci Tavatavanawai, a man not just in the top five for defenders beaten – again – in 2024, but also for breakdown turnovers.

“It’s a credit to his game. He’s changing what a winger is being over the ball,” Papali’i added. “But I’ve seen it where our wings can get over the ball here. It’s changing a bit; they can do many things that wingers never used to do like defending, but now they love defending.”

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Hosting another Kiwi derby is an exciting prospect for the Blues flanker, with the Hurricanes game having drawn a crowd of 26,000 to the infamous Eden Park last Saturday afternoon.

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Papali’i spoke about what it meant for the team to have that support there for such a big occasion that he and fellow All Black TJ Perenara agreed afterwards had a Test match intensity to it.

“People don’t understand how much of an impact it has on the players. The whole atmosphere was lit up. That’s the first time we played Super Rugby where we’ve had that, apart from the Covid ‘Canes game, where we had a sellout.

“It just adds that extra couple of per cent in the players to play a bit harder.”

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