Over the last four seasons Peter Saili’s form chart has mirrored that of the Blues -while there have been some impressive peaks and moments of brilliance, more often than not they’ve been followed by disappointing troughs.
Rookie of the year in 2009, the former New Zealand Schoolboy star failed to deliver on his early promise as he struggled to tie down a starting spot.
Yet playing his fifth campaign with the Blues this year and just three games shy of 50 Super Rugby caps, Saili has led the team’s renaissance with two commanding performances.
Gone are the inconsistencies that previously plagued his game, the high-risk offloads, the missed tackles and the loose play.
Instead they’ve been replaced by a powerful ball carrier who eats up metres from the back of the scrum, cleans rucks, smashes the opposition in defence and is a leader.
Yes – a leader.
At just 24-years-old Saili is already a well established and experienced member of the Blues, and the leadership role he has been handed seems to have been the making of him.
“I’m loving it. I feel young again, especially around these new fellas,” he quipped, his beaming smile lighting up the team’s cafe.
“I feel like I’ve gone up a gear with the extra responsibility, I’m thriving under it. I love a challenge. Some people didn’t think I deserved to be in the leadership group but Waams (Ali Williams) sees something in me and I know I can carry that on and do a good job.”
The ‘Sheriff’ of the Blues, one of Saili’s responsibilities in the leadership group is to collect the fine money from teammates accrued by turning up late to training or various any other misdemeanours.
There’s irony in the fact that for someone collecting off the field, it is Saili who is delivering on it to repay the selectors’ faith in him.
When head coach Sir John Kirwan named his new-look 2013 squad in November last year there were a few raised eyebrows at Saili’s inclusion.
However Saili has certainly silenced his critics, playing an integral role in the Blues’ two victories against the Hurricanes and Crusaders this season.
Saili revealed the coaches had invested their faith in him and it was time to pay them back.
“The coaches have put a lot of faith in me to nail down that number eight position whereas in the past there have always been back ups and I’ve been second or third in line,” he said.
“I’ve been trying really hard to crack it. In 2011 I got the chance and took it and had a really good year. I was a bit up and down but held onto that jersey for the rest of the year and we got to the semis. But last year I fell off the rails, I had some off field stuff going on and had some disagreements with the coaches.
“This year it’s all changed. It’s a whole fresh start with new faces and the coaches have told me they want me to lead the way so I’m going to take on that responsibility and do them proud.”
A rejuvenated Saili said the new coaching group of Kirwan, Mick Byrne and Grant Doorey, as well as technical advisor Sir Graham Henry, had really helped him to hone his game and become a better player.
“So far so good, we’ve only had two games and obviously consistency is the main key for me in this campaign.
“The coaches are world class. Everyone says that on the outside but as a player on the inside they’ve helped my game tremendously. One of my main work-ons was defence and they’ve cut everything down, especially the tackle and tracking, and my defence has improved from pre-season going forward so I’m looking forward to the rest of the season and that I keep on getting better.”
It’s also the added responsibility of playing with his younger brother that has spurred Saili on. With Francis graduating from the Wider Training Group to the full squad this season, Peter said he was loving heading into battle with his sibling.
“There’s added pressure and responsibility because I’ve got my little brother in the side so we’ve got to make a name for ourselves and be better, especially with our parents watching us from the grandstands.
:It’s been mean, he looks after the backline and I do my thing in the forwards and we certainly give each other some stick or a look if one of us has messed up out there!”
Part of the reason behind Saili’s success is his physical shape as he’s started the season the fittest and strongest he’s ever been. All that gruelling pre-season work is starting to reap rewards on the field.
“We’ve been in dark places with each other and that’s what a team’s supposed to go through ñ it was six or sevens weeks of hell,” he said.
“I’ll be honest I enjoyed it but it was tough and I’m happy I’ve gone through it. Now we’re into the season I always look back to what we’ve done and it gives me heaps of confidence, especially in the boys that we’ve done the hard work together, all we’ve got to do is put our technical details and talents together and we’ll challenge any team.”