The Blues are giving All Blacks casual striker and regular skipper Dalton Papali every chance to play in Saturday’s sold-out Super Rugby final against the Crusaders at Eden Park.
Papalii, who had to have his appendix removed in the days leading up to the quarter-final against the Highlanders, has been benched in the 23 to face the Crusaders in Saturday’s final. All Blacks wing Caleb Clarke will remain out as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
The Blues have named an unaltered starting XV from the group that took a razor-sharp 20-19 semi-final win over the Brumbies last Saturday, but made a few adjustments on the bench to bolster their drought-breaking success at Christchurch in round-robin play.
The game is going to be a spectacular affair.
Papalii, who had keyhole surgery on his appendix, is bracketed with lock James Tucker as the last attacker on the bench, while veteran utility back Bryce Heem also returns from a head knock to take his place on the pine tree.
† All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock declared fit for Super Rugby decider against Blues
† Luke Romano opens up at Crusaders Super Rugby Pacific final matchup: ‘Just another game’
† Beauden Barrett calls on Blues to go tight and clear for Super Rugby Pacific final
Blues coach Leon MacDonald said Papalii was “convinced” to prove his fitness, and he hoped a final decision would come in the wake of Thursday’s main practice session.
“Dalts has a few boxes to tick,” MacDonald said. “He needs to get through a lot of today’s training and feel really confident. It’s a big game for him to doubt so we want him to come off the grass feeling like he’s ready to to go.”
When asked about the likelihood of the inspirational skipper playing his part off the bench, MacDonald smiled and said: “When he spoke to him he’s quite confident but that’s Dalts, he’s always like that and full of energy. Fingers crossed that he gets through today.”
All major match-maker tickets sold out within five hours, and a house packed crowd of 42,000 will witness the first major final meeting between the two major rivals since 2003, when the Blues won the third and most recent of their titles. †
“It’s huge for us,” said the Blues coach. “We’ve got a great crowd here, they’re really vocal, and the sell-out will be a great atmosphere. It’s going to be a great game – two good teams who want to use the ball, have a lot of firepower over the park, and if the weather plays a part, I think both teams will have a chance.”
MacDonald said emotions were running high in the Blues camp, as they should be in a week as big as this one, with the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific Championship on the line, and the chance to see a 19-year-old title drought (apart from last year’s title). add-on Trans-Tasman competition triumph)
“There’s no getting around it,” he added. “It’s a bit different, a final, especially because we haven’t been to a grand final like this in so long, and the fact that it’s the Crusaders. There is a lot of hype in the city. Every time you walk down the street someone wishes you the best, which is great.
“We’re embracing it, enjoying our last week together as a group, it’s our last practice today (Thurs), and we’re just trying to enjoy this week as much as possible. Not too many changes. We try to keep things familiar because that helps keep the nerves down.
And those nerves, MacDonald added, were part of what made a match like this so special.
“There are many layers in it. We have our mental toolbox that we use to keep your nerves in check. But nerves are not a bad thing, nerves are there for a fight, and we embrace that. If you weren’t nervous, you’re probably in the wrong place, but you don’t want them to get out of hand. There are many different things we talk about to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind to contribute.”
Really fits for a game that probably comes down to who can best control.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam, Roieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett (capt), Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luke Romano, Dalton Papalii/James Tucker, Sam Nock, Bryce Heem, Zarn Sullivan.
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