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6 June 2022
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There are many strands to Papalii’s game

“If we win Super Rugby Pacific, I can retire at 24!”

Don’t worry, Dalton Papalii is joking about hanging up the boots just yet. But he’s deadly serious about winning Super Rugby Pacific, 12 months after the Blues annexed the Trans-Tasman title. By the time you read this, they should be gearing up for a home semifinal or final.

At the start of 2021, Caleb Clarke told this magazine that he and Papalii had made a pact that they would not leave this franchise until they had won a championship. Blues fans hope they stick around for many years yet even if Papalii does raise the trophy aloft on June 18.

“That’s the goal. Winning the Trans-Tasman was a taste. It was still a massive accomplishment, to have something in the trophy cabinet after so long. But taking out (Super Rugby Pacific) would just mean the world,” says Papalii.

Those odds firmed three days after this interview, when the captain and No 7 made a critical turnover after the siren, which set in train the events leading to Beauden Barrett’s dramatic late dropped goal to edge the Brumbies and solidify the Blues as top qualifier and with it home advantage through the playoffs. On such key moments do seasons often hang. We know Papalii is a tackling machine, and was fourth on the list of top Super Rugby Pacific tacklers at the time of writing, but there is more breadth to his game than many who rack up big numbers in that area.

England’s admirable Joe Worsley, for instance, did not possess the softer touches that Papalii can showcase, that ability to slip a short ball or fire a long cutout pass, pull down a lineout at two, then clean out with venom at the ruck, or charge 30m to the tryline as he did so emphatically against the Crusaders this season. Still, that tackling has come in very useful in 2022. Papalii has donated $7 for every tackle made to the I Am Hope foundation for mental health. He’d only missed five but he’s paid out on those too. Combined with Adrian Choat’s tackles for when he is rested, Papalii has raised over $1200 from about 190 tackles when we spoke. Not bad going.

There seems to be a growing maturity about Papalii the rugby player, and he makes for an engaging interview. No more of the arm-waving at the front of the lineout when the opposition hooker is throwing in. It was hardly a hanging or illegal offence, but was a needless part of his game up until last season. The captaincy has helped in this area. “When I first took on the role, I admit I struggled a bit. But the good thing is I have a leadership group around me, which is a massive help.

Guys like Beaudy Barrett, Kurt Eklund, Rieko Ioane and Tom Robinson make my job so much easier. I can delegate jobs I’m not so strong in. They shine in those areas. That makes me that much more confident and allows me to play my own game. When my cup’s overflowing, I can start helping others,” he says.

Papalii freely admits he has improved his relationship with the referees, an area in which Richie McCaw was especially adept. “Early on, I couldn’t shut up and I kept going up to the ref and questioning him on everything. I’ve got much better at that and had good feedback from the refs that my relationship has grown there.”

“Early on, I couldn’t shut up and I kept going up to the ref and questioning him on everything.”

Papalii does have captaincy experience, leading his St Kentigern College First XV to the 2015 Auckland 1A title and the Auckland Under 19s at the 2016 Jock Hobbs Memorial National Under 19 tournament. He took the captaincy at the Blues Under 20s, but admits it was a shock when Leon MacDonald asked him to step into the job when Patrick Tuipulotu took up his sabbatical in Japan.

Though there have been no conversations yet about 2023, Papalii is not expecting to hold the captaincy when Tuipulotu is fully ensconced back in the squad. “This is just a fill-in for Patty. Everyone respects him. He’s high up. I respect him and am happy to follow him.”

In the meantime, Papalii will continue to lead by example, even if his moustache would not pass muster in a 1980s All Blacks pack, nor would his fluoro coloured boots. But this is the new age. He’s a good talker, but his first job is to perform, to lead by example. That gains instant respect from his peers. “I know players don’t want to follow someone who talks but never shows up, but I also try to communicate the right message to the boys. We have really good synergy in the leadership group and we try and pick each other up,” he says.

The old warhorse Luke Romano has been gold for the Blues this season. The veteran lock is more than 11 years older than Papalii, but the latter has loved working with him. “He’s awesome. I have to admit he’s so valuable to our success. He’s brought so much experience to our forwards. You can soak up his knowledge, those little things you thought you knew about footy, not just his play. He’s always tapping me on the shoulder with little tips.”

Furthermore, Romano comes from a winning culture at the Crusaders and he has done exactly what MacDonald wanted when he signed him. Papalii had it sweet at school in a high-performing team, but his early days as a full-time pro were not all beer and skittles. He made four appearances for Auckland off the pine in the 2017 NPC, when the side was not far off relegation. It was an annus horribilis. The Blues were worse in 2018, his debut Super Rugby season, placing 14th out of 15 and chalking up just four wins.

A 20-year-old Papalii found himself at No 6, No 7 or No 20, playing second fiddle to the likes of Murphy Taramai, Kara Pryor or Antonio Kirikiri. Funnily enough, even after he cracked the All Blacks in late 2018 following a superb NPC campaign, he did not nail down the Blues No 7 jersey until 2021. His old First XV captain Blake Gibson, a man with a big engine who goes hard on the ball, was often preferred. Now he has sailed past the 50-cap mark.

“There’s always been such good players in that position since I’ve been here. I’ve been chucked around quite a bit or come off the bench. When I arrived (in 2018), there were some dark days. It has been a journey but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s grown me to be the man I am now on and off the field,” Papalii declares.

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He can play off the back or on the blindside because he has the skillset and hardness to do so, but is now making a compelling case to be the best No 7 in the nation, now that Ardie Savea is seen as a No 8. Sam Cane, as tough as old boots and with 77 Tests under his belt, has not been far off the pace too. Never fear. All things being equal, all three will be in the squad to face Ireland next month.

At the Blues, there is a nice balance in the loose trio. If Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane are there, two attacking-minded players, then Papalii is content to shoulder more of the defensive burden. Tom Robinson is a ball-winner at six, if not lock, while the tigerish Choat, and the industrious and versatile Anton Segner, round out the best loose forwards in Super Rugby Pacific. The Blues’ mindset has changed, as much as their personnel, since those dark days of 2018.

They are harder on themselves, even when they win now. While they were on a tear of 12 straights wins at the time of print – we haven’t seen this since the glory days of ’97 – they could have found fault with eight of those victories. The standards are higher. “The fear of failure was bigger than the winning mindset back in the early days. It scared us and stopped us opening up and playing exciting footy.

Now we have the X-factor and the talent, but we have the dogs in the team too and they are the ones who smash rucks and put their heads in those dark places. We used to shy away from that,” Papalii says. One man who never shied away from the dark places was Jerome Kaino, whose final season at the Blues was Papalii’s first. Talk of the Blues’ legacy and those who have gone before turns to Kaino. “He was a guy I always looked up to. He didn’t play seven but he could have.

Getting to play with that man was special. I tried to take how physical and destructive he was and use that in the No 7 jersey,” says Papalii. Don’t expect him, however, to make as many dominant tackles as Kaino, whose absence of a Super Rugby title was about the only thing missing from a long and rich CV. “I want to try and smack people every tackle but I have to be realistic and pick my moments,” he says.

Consistency and accuracy before the big shots is the mantra. Tackles, and tackle heights, have been some of the topics du jour all season in Super Rugby. “I haven’t actually given it that much thought. I’ve always backed myself to make the right tackle for the right situation and moment. I know other players have had to adjust their technique because a little tap on the head with your shoulder is red card territory. Most teams have had to look at that. Games are won or lost on that stuff, so you have to pay attention and fine-tune your detail.

“That (Ireland) was one of the toughest games I’ve ever played in my rugby career, how physical and dominant they were.”

“We’ve been hard on ourselves and making individuals accountable within the team. We harp on it at training. Discipline can be such a momentum-shifter in a game. Keep your penalties down and you have a good chance of winning,” he says. The All Blacks (and Ireland) are fast approaching the horizon, and Papalii has vivid recall of the famous defeat by Ireland last November.

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He racked up no less than 28 tackles but would have gladly swapped most of them for the W. If ever a 29-20 scoreline was deceptive, it was this one. The All Blacks pack was pounded relentlessly. “That was one of the toughest games I’ve ever played in my rugby career, how physical and dominant they were. They controlled that whole game and we were trying to pick off the scraps. I know this series versus Ireland will be a good one,” Papalii says.

The man he marked, Josh van der Flier, is hot to trot with his form, so Papalii and Cane et al will have their hands full in the collisions. “I had a good yarn with him after the game. He seems like a good bastard, that Josh. So I try and see how he plays and take a few things off him. The Irish are fit buggers, too, which makes it harder, because they won’t go away.

“They showed up that night. People say we could have been burnt out from a long season but that’s no excuse. It’s an opportunity to make amends and get one over them.” Or indeed three, Dalton. Maybe Joe Schmidt can help with some intel. But before that much-awaited series, there’s a Super Rugby title to be won. You can count on the captain being right in the thick of the Blues’ charge. A more mature captain and man.

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