"They like to have that image of the underdog and being the ones that no one backs but every time I've played the Highlanders it's been a grudge match so I'm looking forward to a good game against them, and a Test match," he said.
Papali'i was confident the team was where it needed to be heading into a new campaign. The introduction of the returning All Blacks over the last few weeks had seen connections building well, and with a solid core of returning players, the connections were in place from last season.
"Looking at the time now, and the vibe and the feel, I think, we're pretty up there and feeling good," he said.
There was some feeling lingering from their disappointment in losing last year's final to the Crusaders, but it was a new season, and players needed to look at it that way rather than thinking about the past.
"We still have a little ember there but the team is in the right direction and we are keen to have a fast start against the Highlanders."
The work has been going on behind the scenes to ensure the side evolves, and Papali'i said what he had seen since his return was a breath of fresh air rather than continuing in the same routines from last year.
"We still have what worked well last year but we are evolving our game."
Papali'i faces a personal challenge as a flanker in coping with the changes that will occur with law variations, especially dealing with rampant No8s who have more room to run off the back of attacking scrums.
"We're still figuring out ways how we defend that. It is tricky because slowing down the back of our scrum was to give fast flankers time, but now it has changed.
"The good thing with loosies here is that we are always helping each other and thinking of different ways that we can get off the scrum earlier, and different calls that we can have. We're still adjusting to that."
The Highlanders host the Blues on Saturday 25 February, 7.05pm, at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Watch LIVE on Sky Sport NZ.