Papali'i shocked, happy and grateful

Getty Images

Lynn McConnell     15 Oct 2018     Getty Images

A flanker who can play either side of the scrum, Papali'i played on the openside in the semifinal and final of last year's tournament against France and England respectively, scoring tries in each of the wins, 39-26 over France and 64-17 over England.

Papali'i was also a member of the 2016 Under-20 side and told during the Investec Super Rugby season when he was called into the Blues that he had benefited from time with Auckland in last season's dismal Mitre 10 Cup campaign where relegation was just avoided.

Papalii said his All Blacks selection was still sinking in, he was shocked, happy and grateful.

He had been a training with the Auckland team and they were having a break at 1pm so he sat back to hear the team announcement and was shocked to hear his name.

His selection had produced tears from his mother and his father had been speechless. It had been humbling to see their reaction, he said.

The Mitre 10 Cup campaign had been a 'massive' campaign for him.

He was just looking to improve himself this year.

But in getting the opportunity to play for the All Blacks he had been helped by the competition-topping effort by Auckland because everyone had been doing their job, allowing him to concentrate on his own.

"This team was a massive stepping stone in me achieving this," he said.

Papalii said he would be looking to learn as much as he could from players who were the best in the world.

"They're the best of the best, the best team in the world so you want to try and learn as much as you can off those players; the way they act and the way they are professional. You want to learn off that.

"And if the opportunity does come to play I'm going to take it," he said.

Papali'i said his time with the Blues had helped him grow.

"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," he said.

All Blacks selector Grant Fox said Papali'i had been a star in the New Zealand Under-20s side, more as a blindside flanker but he had been required to play more as an openside this year.

"He is a big man and was injury-plagued during the Blues season but had a very strong Mitre 10 Cup. We need more cover at seven [openside] so he fits that bill and uniquely he can play six, we often haven't had guys who can interchange that role. Seven or eight like Ardie [Savea] can or six and eight like Liam Squire can. I can't recall a guy who can do seven and six.

"He's a big strong man, he carries well, defends well, works hard and we've been impressed with him so he gets an opportunity," he said.

Coach Steve Hansen reiterated that versatility and said they regarded Papali'i as a player of the future and they want to have a look at him.

Fellow loosies Gareth Evans and Dillon Hunt were going to Japan in the wider group to prepare for the Test against Japan. They could only pick one of the three to go on to Europe.

Hansen said the All Blacks were excited about both legs of the tour. Australia had shown tenacity in their last game, against Argentina, and would be quality opposition.

"We're also excited about what comes with the Japan game. If you look back to the last World Cup they were good enough to beat South Africa, they're making great progress and it will allow us to get a really good feel for what we are heading to next year. The same facilities, the same hotels, the same training," he said.

That was also the reason for taking only 32 players, one less than last year, because it would allow them to face the same selection situation they will face at the World Cup. Their game with Australia would be their first, just as South Africa will be top opposition in the opening game of the World Cup, while Japan was representative of the next tier opposition they will meet.

The games against England and Ireland would be big games, as would the final game of the season against Italy, who are also in the same World Cup pool as New Zealand.