The Blues and All Blacks breakaway knows what he wants and he’s willing to scrap all the way towards it. This feature first appeared in Rugby World in February

IT WASN’T pretty. When Dalton Papalii rocked up to his first All Blacks camp for an end-of-year tour, the conditioners saw an athlete who, by their standards, was “terribly unfit. Slow. Average”.

After a standout campaign with Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup, in 2018 he arrived… Only to lose puff at the bottom of a learning curve.

Since that day, says All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill, Papalii has transformed. “He’s just matured into a great man, a great athlete,” Gill tells Rugby World. “He trains hard. He is strong. He pushes himself. In training he’s fiercely competitive. From then until now he has matured into a great rugby player, from a physical perspective.

“I think he learnt a bit. He was just playing good code three or four years ago, but he realised he had to play good code and also physically be in shape so he could play his game for 12 months a year.

Dalton Papalii

Working hard in the gym (Inpho)

“He was very much playing well over the season, then drifting off physically, losing weight, losing condition. Whereas now he’s learnt and he’s got a good routine and I think we’re seeing that with him on the park. He actually plays really big. You know, he’s not a big man. But he plays big. He is just one of these guys. It’s just toughness.”

Last year Papalii was not only a stick-on for the Blues but a Super Rugby Player of the Year nominee and All Blacks berserker. And in a new Super Rugby season – rejigged once more, to include not only Kiwi and Aussie regulars but the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika sides – he is expected to vandalise the opposition’s chances.

But while he may be oblivious to the praise he is getting for his drive, the man is not shy about talking about the sweat and sessions needed on the road to renown.

“I’ve set my own goals going forward and for me to get there, there are no shortcuts,” Papalii tells us. “The main goal for me is to be the best seven in the world. If you don’t have an aspiration like that in your position, you might not be going forward for long, you know.

“I’m probably not the only one with a goal like that. I think most boys will. But the other goals are small ones. Like getting personal bests in the gym, maintaining fitness levels. It’s just small wins.

“We’ve set goals (with the All Blacks) as a team that will help us be the best we can be, individually, and it’s about not skipping the hardship. You can’t skip it to get to where you want to because that kind of stuff you need to be good at to be 1% or 2% better than the other team.”

So what does that mean for someone like Papalii, in a technical sense?

Blues Crusaders

Another look at that match-winning tackle against the Crusaders this season (Getty Images)

“That’s secret stuff, bro!” he counters at first. “Nah, it’s the stuff when you’re waking up every day. We do so much on load and recovery, but it’s that individual recovery you put on yourself. We get some awesome time off and while  you’re recovering you’re hitting the books, you’re studying the other team’s habits, all the little s*** that comes with it that you do to be better than your opponent. That is what I think, anyway.”

Discussions on this may not seem revolutionary for elite sport, but you would be surprised at how far the science of recovery has leapt. In a Sports Illustrated feature entitled How Long Can We Play?, Chris Ballard writes: “LeBron James, who played MVP-calibre ball last year at 36, reportedly spends more than $1m of his own money on his body annually. He employs a personal biomechanist (former Navy SEAL Donnie Raimon), receives liquid nitrogen treatments to reduce inflammation and enjoys the benefits of expensive hot and cold tubs in his home. Steph Curry (still relatively young at 33) swears by float spas and cryotherapy. Roger Federer (40) owns a hyperbaric chamber and sleeps 10 to 12 hours a night in absolute darkness.”

It’s something the ambitious pros in our midst should consider, if they don’t just want to leave everything up to their coaches and conditioners. Albeit on a much cheaper scale – come on, it’s still rugby union we are talking about.

So while in December New Zealand Rugby agreed to sell its 40% share in the Blues to The Better Blues Company Ltd, a consortium of local investors who are hell-bent on “providing stability, support and continuity”, should players like Papalii take as much responsibility as they can for their own improvement?

Dalton Papalii

Papalii poses during a photo session (Getty Images)

“Yeah, 100% because everyone is different,” the back-rower says. “It’s a hard one to define because you’ve got to keep trying different stuff. But eventually when you do get to a professional environment you have a sort of idea. The good thing about being in rugby in New Zealand is that you’ve grown up, you’ve got into those areas and you know if you’ve got a little niggle you go rehab it. But the modern athlete nowadays is finding out how their bodies react to different recoveries.

“I’ve tried different things. Like I got into meditation. I talked to some of the older boys and they were telling me about it because I’m a real bad sleeper. So a couple of nights I tried meditation before I went to bed and I’m finding that I get a better sleep. Better sleep means better performance when you wake up – you can then work harder for longer. All that little stuff adds up.”

Spending a couple of bucks on an app to help relax your mind and meditate before bedtime is a world removed from a cool mil on super-cold chemicals and Navy SEAL staff. But you find your edges along any tables you can. And if it’s a start, it’s one we wouldn’t even have been discussing 15 years ago.

Papalii has done a little visualisation before games but it’s about finding what fits. It’s the breathing techniques of the ‘medication’ he likes, and he has sought other approaches. He tried the Wim Hof approach last year, which was an interesting dalliance, and at one point he found he could hold his breath for longer after experimenting a bit.

But at just 24, the Blues breakaway has a lot more information gathering to do. And this is hardly a journey where you can get somewhere and scream, ‘I’ve cracked it!’ For a start, in going through the wringer over a decent professional rugby career, your body’s physical tolerances will change as much as any law directives from match officials ever can. And while there is the body preparation side, you cannot ignore match-ready techniques.

Blues Super Rugby

The Blues take to the field (Getty Images)

On this, Papalii suggests that while his chop tackle that just drops an attacker instantly could improve, really he needs to sharpen his assessment of the right tackle style to use in the heat of the moment. But he goes on to say: “It’s just one of many weapons. What gets you here is that you’re really a good player.

“So your basics are really good but to get even better you’ve got to pick up the advice of the coaches, players, do your own learnings. For me it’s not about unlearning anything but to just pick up these things on the way to add to your toolkit.”

With all this considered, it wouldn’t shock you if Gill’s words on the 2018 iteration of Papalii would spur him on. The Auckland native talks about how old friends of his can ground him, and if he’s ever dizzied by photo requests or autograph seekers, they will set him straight. Being a hunter and fisherman is not a surprising look for him either. But it’s family time he craves, amongst his parents, two sisters and close-knit network of cousins. You had better be prepared to eat at their get-togethers.

Of course, that Papalii work ethic may have clocked off slightly by the time he gets to the kitchen. He is, he admits, just sitting and being fed at these meets.

“But don’t worry, I’m doing the dishes after!” he adds quickly, sensing that his appetite for graft may be questioned.

There’s always work to be done.

This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in February.

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