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RUGBYPASS+ Dalton Papalii's battle to usurp the All Blacks' best

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Dalton Papalii's battle to usurp the All Blacks' best By Patrick McKendry

Two days before the test against Tonga, Dalton Papalii spoke about his goal to emulate the deeds of those who have worn the famous black No 7 jersey in days gone by: the peerless Richie McCaw, as well as current (and injured) players Ardie Savea and Sam Cane, the skipper. Josh Kronfeld also got a belated mention once it was (gleefully) pointed out to Papalii that the former Highlander was also present in the room as a broadcaster.

In the test itself, Papalii, selected to start due to his excellent form for the Blues this year and in particular during their run to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title, did what was expected of him and probably more. Along with fellow loose forwards Akira Ioane and Luke Jacobson – two others, like Papalii, getting rare starting opportunities – the 23-year-old Papalii was energetic, accurate and efficient. He scored two tries, including the first, in the 102-0 thrashing, before leaving as a precaution due to a calf strain.

That issue will preclude him from any involvement in the test against Fiji in Dunedin this weekend, with Ethan Blackadder set to start.

Ethan Blackadder, one of four debutants in the All Blacks’ win over Tonga, has been named to start in the No 7 jersey for this weekend’s clash with Fiji. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The black machine will roll on, and probably over the top of the Fijians under the roof in the deep south, and Papalii will have to work and scrap for his next chance. Blackadder, a strong, rangy and versatile loose forward, was good at Mount Smart Stadium in his test debut and will probably shine again on Saturday. Papalii, meanwhile, will rehabilitate his injury in the knowledge that Savea is due to return from his knee issue soon and that Cane is a certainty for the No 7 jersey on his return later in the year from a chest problem.

If anything could provide a snapshot into the challenges of establishing themselves in this All Blacks’ team it’s Papalii’s. After watching his team predictably dismantle Tonga in South Auckland, head coach Ian Foster said it was one of the most challenging to select in his nine years with the All Blacks.

“I would say in my time with the All Blacks, there’s probably more positions that we’re debating than probably for a long, long time,” Foster mused following the match.

“So, this series is a very important series for us from that perspective. We’ve got some big calls to make, but I think we’ll worry about those calls after we see these three games.

“The great thing is we’ve got a chance to actually give some people some opportunity to put their best foot forward during the training week and how they prepare. She’s pretty competitive.”

A mere calf strain for anyone could add up to a major setback but the positive thing for Papalii is the form which got him into that No 7 jersey in the first place and the fact the All Blacks could play up to 14 more tests this year. 

Currently there are only a couple of players who are mandatory selections: lock and stand-in captian Sam Whitelock, who gets a rest from the starting side on Saturday, and halfback Aaron Smith, who will captain the team for the first time this weekend. Everyone else is likely to be on tenterhooks for various reasons, although another second-rower, Brodie Retallick, is a shoo-in for the big tests once he re-establishes himself after his Japan sabbatical.

A mere calf strain for anyone could add up to a major setback but the positive thing for Papalii is the form which got him into that No 7 jersey in the first place and the fact the All Blacks could play up to 13 more tests this year. 

In explaining his selections for the first test of the year, Foster described Papalii as the form loose forward in New Zealand due to his work at the Blues, and, in an interview with The XV, Papalii said the consistent game time at openside flanker for the Blues had allowed him to build momentum.

Dalton Papalii has been New Zealand’s best-performing openside flanker throughout 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

“In the last three years I’ve been at the Blues I’ve had to learn No 7, 6 and also 8,” he said. “This year they peeled it back and said ‘we want you at 7’. It gave me the license to focus on that and not stress about the other positions. I think that was a key factor for my form. I only had to learn one role – the finer details of being a 7. 

“It showed. I’m a humble guy but I think this Super season was one of my best. I nailed one role and felt like I developed around the field. I felt my jackaling was better this year and also my tackle technique which I hold to a high standard. I felt I made small gains in that area, too.”

Papalii’s ball carrying, and, most of all, his pace when in possession, was noticeable this season. It was against Tonga, too.

“That was the system we ran at the Blues – that’s how I found myself running out there. That’s a development in my game. I wear my heart on my sleeve as far as my defence is concerned, but my attack is a growing area; getting the ball in hand and looking for opportunities to put people into space, and different running lines. We always have stuff to work on.”

“I thought I might have a few more opportunities to play but I talked to Fozzie and he laid it out to me. Fozzie said ‘can you help prepare the boys?’. I knew I would only get a little bit of game time – I knew my role and everyone has a part to play in this team.

Dalton Papalii on his off-field role for the All Blacks last year

In the absence of Cane and Savea, the All Blacks’ move towards big No 7s such as Papalii and Blackadder may be an acknowledgement that the pack requires big bodies to shift big bodies. South Africa, Argentina and Ireland, all of whom contain very big forwards, are looming and while the All Blacks will back their skills, fitness and pace to manipulate the defences of those nations, getting the ball in the first place will require brute strength – especially at the breakdown where Foster’s men struggled at times last year.

After making his test debut at the end of 2018, Papalii played only one test in 2019 and only one last year. He admitted he was expecting to play more often in 2020 but circumstances conspired against him. The All Blacks played only six and his sole match-day contribution was as a reserve in the victory over Australia in Sydney.

“It was another learning curve for me,” he said. “I thought I might have a few more opportunities to play but I talked to Fozzie and he laid it out to me. Fozzie said ‘can you help prepare the boys?’. I knew I would only get a little bit of game time – I knew my role and everyone has a part to play in this team. You can sulk about it but I thought ‘no, these are my brothers I want to help them prepare week in and week out’.

“Every training I tried to help out and make them better. Fozzie saw that but I don’t want any credit for it; that’s my job and I’m here to help whoever’s playing at the weekend.

“I’m just saw grateful to wear that jersey. Like I said, there are some greats that have worn that jersey. It’s a special one. I have to fill it with what I can bring and that’s heart, work rate and doing the basics well.”

The All Blacks’ loose forwards, including Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane, were in fine form in New Zealand’s opening test of 2021. (Photo by Shane Wenzlick/Photosport)

What made them great was impact and consistency, qualities Papalii would like to emulate if only he would get a chance.

“I put them on a pedestal because every time they got the opportunity to play on the world stage they delivered,” he said. “That’s why they were in the All Blacks for so long. They consistently got better. They had an all-round game, they were fit and strong and powerful. I’m chasing them and I’ve set that as a goal.”

And his mentality in putting his head in dangerous places to win the ball as he so often did for the Blues this year? It’s pretty straightforward for a hard-working young man starting to reach his potential.

“Some of my mates reckon I must be pretty crazy to do that but it’s the 7’s job. The breakdown is a key factor in the 7’s job description so you’ve just got to bite the mouthguard and get into it.”

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