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FEATURE The return of Dalton Papali'i puts Sam Cane's spot in jeopardy

The return of Dalton Papali'i puts Sam Cane's spot in jeopardy
1 year ago

The All Blacks have experienced more upheaval in their turnover of coaches, players and philosophies in 2022 than in any other season in professional memory. It has been like the climactic scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when the evil cyborg morphs into the hundred different shapes it copied before finally melting away in a blast furnace.

The All Black are very far from melting away, if anything they are coming back to life after looking half-dead in the July series against Ireland. Many of the changes since that nadir in their fortunes have undoubtedly worked.

Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan have moved into the coaching group and provided essential backbone in support of head coach Ian Foster. A new front row has been minted and moulded by Mike Cron. Not before time, New Zealand has decided that Jordie Barrett’s physical attributes might be better suited to number 12, with Richie Mo’unga at 10 and his brother at the back.

One area with the biggest potential upheaval still looming ahead of it is the back-row. Roll the clock back to the middle of 2021, and the combination of Akira Ioane at 6, Dalton Papali’i at 7 and Ardie Savea at 8 was the flavour of the month. In that back-row formation, Akira was the widest attacker, and left the tight work to his mates:

Papali’i has done the spadework at a turnover ruck on the right, Ardie is in midfield and Akira links with the backs on the counter out to the left sideline. That was quite typical, and the article concluded as follows:

“Papali’i has an enormous appetite for work on defence and at cleanout time, and shows signs of developing a good relationship with Savea on both sides of the ball.

“The real enigma is Akira Ioane at number 6. His lineout work is developing nicely and he can run and handle as well as any big man in New Zealand, to the extent that he routinely plays as the widest of the back-rowers on attack. He is often trusted with making the link to the first back on defence.

“With the Pumas and the world champion Springboks looming, tougher tests of his mettle in the tight work and in a tighter game await. The likes of Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Duane Vermuelen, Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer will test his physical application to the limit, and beyond.”

It has proved uncomfortably prophetic. Problems came to a head when skipper Sam Cane returned from injury to replace Papali’i; by the end of the July series against the Irish and the first game of the 2022 Rugby Championship versus the Springboks, it had become clear to the New Zealand selectors that the idea of a big man playing out wide was a luxury they could not afford if they wanted to keep their captain. Akira Ioane had to be sacrificed, and he duly was.

In came Shannon Frizell for the second game against South Africa at Ellis Park, and the structural improvement was immediate. Frizell was able to handle the physical chores and play a much more central role than Ioane, and that freed up Cane to shift wider in support of the backs. The All Blacks skipper looked far more comfortable than previously, and that back-row stuck together for the remainder of the tournament:

The article ended with another clear-cut question: “Are there other openside flankers, like the Blues’ Dalton Papali’i, who can play Sam Cane’s new role even better than the captain himself?” With Cane once again out injured on the end-of-year tour, it looks like we are about to find out the answer.

One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, and Dalton Papali’i now has a shot at establishing himself as New Zealand’s number one number seven over a run of games. As the All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill recently told Rugby World magazine:

“He’s just matured into a great man, a great athlete. He trains hard. He is strong. He pushes himself. In training he’s fiercely competitive… He actually plays really big. He is just one of these guys. It’s just toughness.”

“I’ve set my own goals going forward and for me to get there, there are no shortcuts,” Papali’i said. “The main goal for me is to be the best [number] seven in the world. If you don’t have an aspiration like that in your position, you might not be going forward for long, you know.”

The scene is set for a battle royale at the blue riband position of openside flanker before the World Cup ever occurs. Sam Cane may be the expected one, the man groomed to replace Sir Richie McCaw ever since the great man retired, but Dalton Papali’i is primed and ready to have a say in the succession plan.

It could leave Ian Foster in a very awkward position. New Zealand Rugby went out of their way not to sack him after the losing series against Ireland, and he may feel obliged to offer his anointed skipper the same level of support. It could create a red-hot selection potato before the tournament in France.

The truth of the matter is that Papali’i is already bigger – about three inches taller and 7-10 kilos heavier – than Cane, and he may already be better. Here are the raw stats from the 2022 Rugby Championship:

On defence, Papali’i appears as the more reliable tackler, and he does not suffer in the work-rate comparison. As observed in the original article, Papali’i also won as many turnovers on the deck in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman 2021 as Ardie Savea. Cane only had one pilfer over the entire nine-game span of the July series and 2022 Rugby Championship.

On attack, at 6’4” he offers a lineout option, and carries more powerfully and meaningfully in the outside channels than the New Zealand skipper – all of which was in evidence on the opening weekend of the tour versus Wales in Cardiff. Dalton Papali’i had a whale of a game, carrying five times for 34 metres, completing 14 of his 15 tackles, winning two lineouts and one pilfer; all framed by an insane ruck attendance rate of almost one involvement-per-minute.

Drop Papali’i into the wide channels on attack, and this will likely be the outcome:

The big Aucklander sheds two Welsh forwards (Adam Beard and Justin Tipuric in the blue hat) as he powers on into the 22. His potency out wide knits together perfectly with Ardie Savea’s excellence on the pick-and-go once the All Blacks enter the red zone. The first example of the two comes from the same sequence of play, which eventually resulted in a try for Codie Taylor

There is excellent synergy between Savea and Papali’i on both attack:

and in defence:

Where the All Blacks used Sam Cane’s tackling to create pilfering opportunities for the likes of Savea and Sam Whitelock in the Rugby Championship, now they can double up the pressure at two successive rucks via Savea and Papali’i.

That is the short-hand, here is a longer version of how well the two players can combine together on D:

First Papali’i pushes nuggety Welsh number 12 Nick Tompkins back and away from the advantage line, then he stops hooker Ken Owens in his tracks to produce slow ball and a pilfering opportunity for Savea on the next phase. The two had already created a turnover earlier in the match:

‘We hunt together’ as the saying goes.

Dalton Papali’i was still going strong in the dying embers of the match:

If he maintains the kind of form he showed against Wales, Papali’i will present the Kiwi selectors with an unwanted, but nonetheless positive selection problem ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

NZR has already demonstrated a commitment to the Foster-Cane axis as coach and captain before the tournament, but the Auckland man may yet cause a serious review of that policy.

He offers more at lineout time, out wide in attack and on the deck in defence than the All Blacks skipper. He also knits together nicely with Ardie Savea at number 8, and that synergy was evident even in the earlier article written back in August 2021. Will it be enough to get him the nod as starting number 7? New Zealand’s hopes at the World Cup may depend on the answer to that question.


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