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Connacht excited about potential of 'big and physical man' Abraham Papali'i

The Kiwi number eight only moved into professional rugby union last year.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

HIS DEBUT AGAINST Munster back in August only lasted 25 minutes before he was sent off but even in that brief window, Abraham Papali’i was able to hint at the power he can add for Connacht with four big carries.

His red card for a high tackle on Conor Murray resulted in a three-game suspension so the 27-year-old Kiwi made just his second appearance for Connacht two weekends ago in their most recent game, an impressive win away to Edinburgh.

The former rugby league player, a summer signing from Mitre 10 Cup side Bay of Plenty, got through 53 minutes before being replaced – his fitness remains in a work in progress – and showed the ball-carrying punch that he brings to the mix in Andy Friend’s squad.

Listed at 125kg and 6ft 4ins by Connacht, Papali’i could prove to be the kind of imposing back row carrier that Connacht have arguably been missing in recent seasons. 

His signing came out of the blue and Friend has taken something of a punt on Papali’i but there is some excitement within the squad about the new addition, even if he is best avoided in training.

“We have a thing called ‘hit and stick’ where it’s not a full tackle to ground, just hit and stick, but he’s very enthusiastic with that, let’s say,” explains fellow back row Paul Boyle with a smile.

“He’s a big man. He came here the first day weighing 130kg but he’s not fat. He’s 130kgs and lean enough for a man that size. He’s added a lot, he’s a big and physical man.”

“You have to fully prep yourself for working with him in training but that’s the best practice you can get!”

AP

Auckland native Papali’i is of Samoan descent and signed for rugby league’s New Zealand Warriors out of school – where he played league and union – before having a spell with the famed Sydney Roosters.

He moved on to French rugby league side Lézignan Sangliers in 2016 but returned to Kiwi rugby league two years later. His switch into professional rugby union came as recently as 2019 when his form for the Waitakere club in Auckland led to a Mitre 10 Cup contract with Bay of Plenty.

As they scoured the market for a big number eight, Connacht saw enough in Papali’i's five appearances for the Steamers last year to give him a shot.

“The power and the physicality around his ball carry are clear for all to see, even in those few minutes in the Munster game,” says Connacht defence coach Peter Wilkins.

“With that comes the ability to offload and get others in the game as well, so that’s certainly something we’ll see more and more of as he gets more game time.

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“Definitely, very similar to his carry – he loves to hit hard. He loves to be in the game, around the ball and contributing. That physicality and power, if we can continually work on the accuracy and consistency of that, then allied with his natural power, we will get someone who is a really effective defender.

“Like all guys of that size and physicality, it’s important to ensure they’ve got the capacity to work continuously and get those back-to-back efforts and speed off the ground and continuing to bring that linespeed.

“The more time he’s had training with us, the more that has improved and the more game time he gets, the more it will improve.

“Around the group, he’s been a tremendous addition. He’s a real character and he’s been popular among the group. He’s very keen to earn his stripes and prove himself to the lads, he’s very much a team player in that sense.

abraham-papalii Papali'i only moved into pro rugby union last year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He brings an infectious energy, whether that’s running drills in the rain like we were this morning or building up to a game.

“Abraham, despite that rocky first game, has had a really positive impact around the place and everyone’s excited about seeing more of him.”

There will be a longer wait to see Papali’i's fellow new signing, Ben O’Donnell, in action in the green jersey.

An addition from the Australia 7s programme, 25-year-old wing O’Donnell ruptured his ACL back in January and remains on the comeback trail despite having arrived in Connacht.

“He’s ahead of schedule but not ready just yet,” says Wilkins. “I wouldn’t expect to see him in November but his progress has been good.

“If we see something of him this side of Christmas, that would be really good for us and Ben. It won’t be in the next three or four games.” 

Connacht will hope O’Donnell can make a similar impact to John Porch, his former Australia 7s team-mates, who has been superb since arriving in Ireland.

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Murray Kinsella

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