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There's a smile on Francis Saili's face that's been missing for too long for a young rugby player with his outrageous talent.
A couple of clean linebreaks and a Super Rugby win can do that for a 22-year-old - especially after what he had to endure last year.
His elevation to the Blues from their wider training squad to play five full games last season was a personal triumph tempered by the repeated failings of the team. Then he fronted for North Harbour in the national championship and things went from bad to worse.
It was tough to take for a young man who had been such a star in New Zealand's under-20 world title triumph in 2011.
What a difference a few months can make. What a difference a win can make.
"I'm so happy. We wanted to prove a point, especially coming from disappointing season last year," Saili said, but just as quickly putting the sort of perspective on the situation that will bring a smile to his coach, Sir John Kirwan as the Crusaders loom on Friday night.
"It's not like it defines our season. But it's a start.
"It's going to be a tough one this weekend. I know we had a good win, but we need to stay grounded. It's been back to the drawing board and back to work."
He got a good review from his effort in toppling the Hurricanes 34-20 in Wellington. He mixed good footwork with straight out power, his handling was slick and his biggest work-on was "a need to be a bit more aggressive in my defence".
That will surely get tested at Eden Park where Saili and Rene Ranger are likely to line out against Ryan Crotty and Robbie Freuan. The midfield battle will be crucial.
The Crusaders didn't play last week but even a relative rookie like Saili knows what to expect.
"They are big units," he said of Crotty and Fruean, "and they have some real firepower in their backline. I'm going to see what I can find to try and sneak through."
Second-five Saili is taking confidence from playing alongside the robust Ranger.
"He's always chirping in my ear and I know that if I can try and get through that first defender, he's going to be on my shoulder."
Saili is taking even more confidence from the powerful coaching team assembled around Kirwan. There's no shortage of advice and no lack of personal attention. Grant Doorey is the backs coach, Sir Graham Henry is the defensive guru, Mick Byrne is handing out kicking advice and Kirwan, one of the greatest All Blacks wings, certainly knows what's required from a midfielder.
"For me personally, I'm getting a lot of knowledge from these guys. I feel like I'm building more as a player each and every day with these guys. It's awesome, I can't stress that enough.
"We're there to express ourselves and play the game we like to play ... not be afraid of the plan, but use our abilities. It just feels like fun out there."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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