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Blues back 'warrior' Papali’i over Cane to fill All Blacks' No 7 jersey

Alex Powell,
Publish Date
Thu, 16 May 2024, 3:48pm

Blues back 'warrior' Papali’i over Cane to fill All Blacks' No 7 jersey

Alex Powell,
Publish Date
Thu, 16 May 2024, 3:48pm

Blues coach Vern Cotter has anointed Dalton Papali’i as the man to be the All Blacks’ go-to in the coveted No 7 jersey, over outgoing former captain Sam Cane.

On Monday, Cane announced 2024 will be his last season as an All Black, in order to take up a three-year deal with Japanese side Suntory Sungoliath next year.

What’s more, it was also confirmed Cane will not lead the All Blacks this year.

Naturally, speculation is now revolving around who coach Scott Robertson will select as his skipper, with an apparent two-horse race between Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett.

Just who packs the openside of the scrum, though, appears to be a more straightforward equation.

Papali’i, 26, has already notched up 32 All Blacks caps since he debuted in 2018, largely as an able deputy for when Cane was unavailable through injury, or off the bench.

While still available for the All Blacks without the captaincy, Cane’s cause has been somewhat hampered by a back injury that’s seen him out of action since January while on his Japanese sabbatical. Robertson has already confirmed Cane will miss the start of the season, through said injury.

And asked as to whether Papali’i should be front of the queue to start at No 7 this year, Cotter didn’t mince his words.

“I’m really careful about how I use the word ‘deserve’,” said Cotter. “But I think Dalton is putting in the performances he needs to, to get himself selected and be the number one No 7.

“I believe he can [replace Cane]. I think the game against the Canes showed he’s capable of lifting his level around what you need to put on that black jersey.

“He’s focused on the Blues at the moment, and he’s using those games to become better.

“Obviously, it’s someone else’s choice. But I’ve been very impressed with what he’s doing and what he’s capable of doing.”

Papali’i’s own form for the Blues should leave Robertson with no doubt over his value as an All Blacks contender.

Dalton Papali'i. Photo / Getty Images
Dalton Papali'i. Photo / Getty Images

So far this season, he’s played in 10 of the Blues’ 11 games, with his only absence being an All Blacks-enforced rest for a 47-8 victory over Moana Pasifika.

And with Cotter’s side currently top of the table, and looking to stay there for the rest of the regular season, Papali’i will be a key cog in the Blues’ wheel.

In reality, with Cane already confirmed to miss the All Blacks’ July tests against England, Papali’i’s only real competition for the No 7 spot could come in the form of Savea.

At present, Savea hasn’t played a game of Super Rugby Pacific this season, and that’s unlikely to change given his own return from Japan.

But the form of Blues teammate Hoskins Sotutu at No 8 could see Robertson move Savea into No 7 when he selects his loose forward trio.

Regardless, the Blues know the quality of their man as Super Rugby Pacific approaches its apex.

Helping his cause this weekend will be Papali’i taking on the responsibility of captaincy, with Patrick Tuipulotu rested from facing the Highlanders at Eden Park on Saturday.

“He’s a warrior, he’s got a warrior’s spirit,” Cotter said of Papali’i. “He’s physically very capable of dominating an opposition.

“He’s technically able to carry, and defend. He’s a lineout option, he’s smart, and he’s a leader.”

Elsewhere, Cotter also made the case for Stephen Perofeta to press for an All Blacks spot of his own.

The 27-year-old will return off the bench, after being out of action since injuring his shoulder in March.

Earlier this month, New Zealand Rugby’s head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum admitted the national union were exploring the possibility of bringing Richie Mo’unga back from Japan early, after he signed a three-year deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus at the end of 2022.

Stephen Perofeta. Photo / Photosport
Stephen Perofeta. Photo / Photosport

However, while Robertson would likely welcome that move, it would be a bitter pill to swallow for Perofeta, who has worked away in New Zealand to put himself in the frame to be the All Blacks’ No 10.

Perofeta himself outlines that he’s not thinking about the All Blacks and is instead putting his efforts into winning his Blues place back.

And asked about the prospect of Perofeta putting himself into the frame for higher honours, Cotter has no doubts of his quality.

“Stevie will be Stevie,” said Cotter. “He’s had a good pre-season, he’s played well.

“He can cover two positions. [He’s a] class player and I think he’s grown a lot around the way he prepares and prepares his teammates around how we want to play the game.

“I think he needs to ease his way back in, probably. He’ll do the things Stephen Perofeta does.

“He’ll find a half break, he kicks well, he’s a good defender. I think he’s comfortable, he’s ready to play, the light’s green.”

Alex Powell is an Online Sports Editor for the NZ Herald. He has been a sports journalist since 2016, and previously worked for both Newshub and 1News.

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