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Papalii making most of unexpected ride

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Lynn McConnell     30 May 2018     Getty Images

But opportunity came knocking as the Blues were hit by a severe injury crisis and Papalii has made the most of his chance.

"I never thought this would be happening. I thought I would come in as a player trying to learn off the old veterans but injuries are a curse of the game so I got an opportunity and seemed to hold it," he told allblacks.com

A product of the St Kentigern's College rugby system, at the world tournament he suffered his own injury, damaging his ankle in the first game, against Scotland, and he feared he would be sent home. But successful recovery and rehabilitation had him ready to play in both the semifinal and final, the outstanding 64-17 win over England.

"It was an awesome opportunity to go over there and play with the young players coming up like Asafo Aumua, he's in the All Blacks already. Playing with guys like that going through the grades is something awesome and I just loved every opportunity over there," he said.

Having already played in the 2016 tournament he observed what was required and was able to have an impact in the build-up during his second season.

Playing the final had been a highlight and while Georgia didn't have the widest reputation as a rugby nation, the crowd and atmosphere when playing against the best of the emerging generation of players was something it was impossible to describe, he said.

His goal coming back from Georgia was to try and forge his own way into the New Zealand rugby system.

One offshoot of his experience was a growth in his leadership skills.

"In that sort of environment you know that everyone does their job and you get to do your job but you don't want to overstep yourself and tell players how to play the game. So it was a sort of learning curve for me as a leader. That's probably the biggest thing I took out of it, and playing with those players knowing that I could play my own role and express myself without having to worry about other people's roles," he said.

There was still time for some knockbacks and he endured a hard season with an Auckland Mitre 10 Cup team that flirted with relegation. It made it difficult but he brought it back to learning from the experience and the players involved. That left him looking forward to the 2018 season where the only way was up.

"It's [New Zealand] the pinnacle of world rugby so trying to make a name here is making your name around the world in the sport so I was trying to come in here as a humble kid and trying to learn off these veterans because there's guys like Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill [Williams] that you can learn off. They've been around forever in this game and I was trying to learn off them and try and build my confidence up through the grades here," he said.

His development had been accelerated as a result of the side's need for fit players.

"It's grown me as a player, heaps. I thought I was going to come in and probably ride the bench a couple of times and be here for training.

"But getting a lot of game time which I'm really stoked about, and getting my experience on the field and playing at this level, has grown me into a player where I can start performing at this level now and understanding how the game goes at this level."

The physicality of Super Rugby made an immediate impression on him and he has had the usual exposure to good things and bad, but always learning from them. There was a lot of review at this level and he was trying to maximise the benefits from that.

"The first couple of games I was really bloody sore but now the body is starting to adjust to it and nailing the recovery is a massive thing so I've learnt that and it is a massive part of my game now," he said.