Blues captain Dalton Papali’i still hasn’t shaken the disappointment of last year’s Super Rugby Pacific final defeat to the Crusaders, saying his side “blew it”.
Papali’i, back on Super Rugby duty this morning at Auckland’s Eden rugby club with the rest of the Blues' All Blacks, including Beauden Barrett (but not an ill Caleb Clarke), told the media: “It’s still tough to talk about, man, I’ve got to admit.”
The Blues last June had expectations of backing up their 2021 Super Rugby trans-Tasman victory, when, on a 15-match winning streak, they hosted the Crusaders at Eden Park, but it was the red and blacks who had the last laugh when powering to a 21-7 victory.
After being beaten in Christchurch during the round-robin, Scott Robertson’s men destroyed the Blues’ lineout and put in a defensive performance their rivals had no answer to. It allowed them to extend their winning record to 13 titles.
“That was a real low point for me, to be honest,” Papali’i said. “We worked so hard and didn’t finish. We didn’t execute. We went on that good winning streak – you can’t go 15-1 and not win the chip.
“It’s a good learning. For me, you’ve got to lose one to win one - well, that’s what I’m telling myself.
“We’re still a young group so having that edge and fire from last year, I think the boys are going to explode this year. The main thing is executing in those key moments – that’s what the Crusaders did to us last year. They took away our lineout and we didn’t get any go-forward.
“Last year we came close but we blew it.”
'Another big year' ahead with All Blacks
The 25-year-old Papali’i’s honest reflection came after he watched his teammates train – he has a calf niggle - but he expects to play in the Blues’ first match of the season against the Highlanders in Dunedin on February 25.
And the disappointment remains despite the new year and an excellent recent All Blacks campaign.
Papali’i thrived after replacing the injured Sam Cane on the All Blacks’ northern tour - the loose forward's ball carrying in particular was a huge positive and he, along with probably his Blues teammate, wing Mark Telea, were the team’s big movers last year.
Such was Papali'i's form that he will likely put pressure on Cane for the black No.7 jersey this year - starting with a shortened Rugby Championship in July.
“He took what he was doing with the Blues all year and took it that next level,” coach Leon MacDonald said.
“He was behind the All Blacks captain so it’s easy to step back a little bit and let the skipper run the show but for him to stand up and grab it like he has is awesome. It’s a tough position – you’ve still got Ardie [Savea] there as well – so it’s going to be another big year for him.”
“I just enjoyed it more,” said Papali’i, who entertained his teammates and others with a variety of hair colours last year. “Sometimes when you go up in the professional environment you forget to enjoy the journey.
“I felt freer when I played.”
Papali’i has welcomed back his good mate Patrick Tuipulotu from a season in Japan, as the team’s All Blacks and those on the fringe of selection face up to a hugely significant season which will culminate with the World Cup in France in September.
“There’s a good energy from him,” MacDonald said of lock Tuipulotu, whom he coached in the UK and Ireland in November on the All Blacks XV tour. “I think he’s pretty motivated to go to the World Cup. He’s in good shape physically and refreshed from having some time away."
MacDonald confirmed Tuipulotu and Barrett would support Papali'i as vice-captains.
“There’s plenty to play for, definitely – the Rugby World Cup,” MacDonald added of the season ahead. “Plenty of our guys will feel like they need a good season to confirm their place in the All Blacks. There’s still a bit of unfinished business. We were pleased with last year but obviously winning the title is the ultimate goal.
“We’re trying new things. We’re trying to discover a little edge and that’s important as well.”