Rugby: Blues coach Leon MacDonald backs Dalton Papali'i to challenge Sam Cane for All Blacks World Cup spot

Blues coach Leon MacDonald is backing Dalton Papali'i to challenge incumbent Sam Cane for the starting All Blacks No.7 spot at the Rugby World Cup in France after a breakout 2022 season.

After the New Zealand captain suffered a broken cheekbone against Australia in Bledisloe Cup last year, Papali'i was selected for the second match at Eden Park and turned in a defensive masterclass.

But it was the 25-year-old's performances on the end-of-year-tour against Wales and England that caught the attention, and further piled the pressure on Cane.

Barring another injury, Cane is almost a certainty to lead the All Blacks out in the first match of the World Cup against the hosts at the Stade de France on September 9.

However, MacDonald expects another big season from his skipper and to stake his claim for a starting loose forward position.

Papali'i starred for the All Blacks on the end-of-year-tour last year.
Papali'i starred for the All Blacks on the end-of-year-tour last year. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I think it matters, I think these guys have to go and prove themselves again, a lot of the guys have to have a good season to go on that plane," he said. "I think it will bring a positive edge if anything.

"Dalton will remain as captain, Patrick [Tuipulotu] will come into the leadership group and he will be joint vice captain with Beauden [Barrett].

"I think he took what he was doing with the Blues all year and took it to that next level. He's behind the All Black captain so it's easier to step back a little bit and let the skipper run the show, but for him to stand up and grab it like he has, has been awesome.

"It's a tough position, you've got Ardie [Savea] there as well, so for Dalton, it's going to be another big year for him as captain of the Blues, but he will be wanting to play good rugby as well."

With the World Cup just nine months away, you would expect All Blacks selection to be weighing heavy on the minds of most NZ Super Rugby players - but not Papali'i.

He reveals he's at his best when he's living in the moment, and is determined to lead the Blues to a Super Rugby title after the heartbreaking defeat to the Crusaders in last year's final.

"First job is coming into this [Blues] environment that I love and winning a [championship], that's the goal and building on what we did last year and bringing something back to this Blues organisation," Papali'i said.

"One hundred percent, I know a lot of people say it's in the back of the mind, but for me, that can wait. 

"I don't think of the future heavily, I don't think of the past, I'm in the moment now and right now, got to get this week sorted, got to get my little niggle sorted today, getting better with the boys, that's the first thing on my mind.

"If I keep thinking like that, that's always been a pro of mine, not thinking too far, not stressing about what's coming.

"It's still tough to talk about man I gotta admit, it was a real low point for me to be honest, we walked so hard and we just didn't finish, we didn't execute.

"We went on that good winning streak, you can't go 15-1 and not win a [championship]. You look back now and you think it's good learning.

It may have taken four years since his All Blacks debut to settle into the test arena, but Papali'i is finally feeling comfortable enough to express himself in international rugby.

"I think I just enjoyed it more, sometimes when you go up in the professional environment, you start to forget to enjoy the journey," Papali'i said.

"I think those meetings with those boys, having those connections, I felt like I was enjoying the process a bit more and I felt freer when I played.

"More of the skill area [too], just attacking with ball in hand, I felt that was a bit more of an improvement for myself."