Dalton Papalii has continued where he left off after a shock All Blacks call-up last year. Patrick McKendry spoke to the Blues loose forward who is powering to new heights.
The danger with making the All Blacks in your first year of Super Rugby is that your second year can be a major disappointment if it doesn't quite measure up.
For Blues loose forward Dalton Papalii, who played tests against Japan and Italy last November, there has been no "second-year syndrome", at least in Super Rugby anyway.
Along with fellow flanker Tom Robinson, midfielders TJ Faiane and Ma'a Nonu and wing Tanielu Tele'a, Papalii, still only 21, has been a success story for his side this season – particularly on defence.
This was an area of his game so prominent for Auckland as they swept to last season's Mitre 10 Cup triumph. There is refinement still to come but Papalii has size, durability and the ability to play all three loose forward positions and his form this season for an up-and-down Blues team suggests he must still be in the All Blacks frame.
"It gives me a lot of confidence; the first year with all that happening, I was sort of shocked and quite speechless with how that year went," Papalii told the Herald.
"Starting this year, there was pressure that came with that but I know I'm young and I'm learning a lot."
With impressive blindside flanker Tom Robinson on the reserves bench after missing last weekend's defeat to the Hurricanes with concussion, Papalii will start in the No 6 jersey against the Chiefs at Eden Park tomorrow.
If anything, Papalii may be a victim of his own versatility – and the presence of Robinson, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane – because it has not been easy for him to get starts this season once Gibson returned from injury, but time is on his side and he has impressed with virtually every opportunity.
At 1.91m and 95kg, but with genuine pace which he revealed in scoring a try in the corner after blowing past Beauden Barrett last weekend, it may be that Papalii's long-term position is openside flanker.
"I've played 7, 8 and 6," he said. "I just have to keep doing what I have to. I'm playing 7 mostly, or 6 - wherever they chuck me I'm happy with."
A big factor in Papalii's All Blacks opportunities last year was Sam Cane's broken neck suffered in the test against South Africa in Pretoria last October.
Cane has been named on the Chiefs reserves bench and there is genuine respect among the Blues players for Cane's comeback.
"He's up there with the best," Papalii said. "Credit to him – it was a serious injury and you don't wish any player to get that. It will be awesome to see him back in the Chiefs jersey."
The welcome won't extend to the Chiefs in general because there will be little love lost at Eden Park as the Blues attempt to gain revenge for their 33-29 defeat at Waikato Stadium last month.
There was huge disappointment among the Blues for their failure to convert their pressure against the Hurricanes into points and they are intending to be far more ruthless against the Chiefs.
"We're trying to cut out our errors because it's our mistakes that are letting us down. We feel as a team we're good enough to beat anyone.
"We haven't been getting smashed off the park, we're losing games by a few points – maybe a try and a bit. We know we're our own worst enemy. The Canes scored their tries off our mistakes.
"Every game is a big game but there's always been that little edge between the Blues and Chiefs. They're coming to our home ground and we want to make a stand."