Israel Dagg has struggled for form in the last 12 months but against the USA he was back to his counter-attacking best and he's ready for England
In the basement of the swanky Royal Kensington Gardens hotel, the All Blacks, the world’s most successful team are holding court as they unveil their new Test shirt, unsurprisingly in black…
At the roll out of what Adidas are marketing as the ‘blackest kit ever’, all the big guns were put on show for the assembled media; Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Israel Dagg, all pimped and preened in a sign of the marketing might of Adidas.
In a purposefully menacing promotional video, former All Black Buck Shelford in a darkly lit room, said, ‘Black is evil, black is dark but it is our colour,’ with a wry smile. It was all very slick, as you’d come to expect with the All Blacks.
With formalities out of the way, one man all too aware of the responsibility of the black shirt is 45-cap Canterbury Crusader full-back Israel Dagg, who will face England on the weekend.
Dagg has, in truth, had a mixed 18 months, where a few indifferent displays in the ABs jersey, notably against England, saw him side dropped for the start of The Rugby Championship, as Highlanders back three Ben Smith took his shirt. However in recent months Dagg regained the 15 shirt and has looked more like his old self putting in a superb offensive display last weekend against, albeit, limited opposition in the US Eagles, and scoring a fine individual try.
Whether this upturn in form has been due to some honest ‘soul-searching’ by Dagg or the reality of having one of the world’s best full-backs, in Ben Smith vying for his jersey is a moot point, but Dagg says that getting the mental side right is paramount. Only recently, Gilbert Enoka, their mental coach said they worked on a ‘no dickheads policy’ that espoused team ethic, above personal success, was all.
Dagg nods, agreeing wholeheartedly with that assertion. “Yeah, the mental side is a big part of our game and we work pretty hard on that throughout the year. Gilbert is one of our leaders in the preparation side of things. If we’re honest, a few years ago, when the going got tough we tended to shy away from that.”
Dagg is, perhaps, inadvertently alluding to the 1999 and 2007 Rugby World Cup ‘choking tag’. “Listen, for this particular playing group, we embrace the pressure. When the game is getting tough, we just pull together. We have great leaders in the team and Richie and co pull us together and unite us.”
The All Blacks have also, to the frustration of the opposition, learned how close out games, with nine victories in their last 13 games coming by eight points or less, with last-minute victories against Ireland and Australia, in the last 12 months. “We just have a belief that the game is not over until the 80th minute when the ref blows his whistle. If there are five minutes left on the clock and we’re down we just keep working harder. We know every game is going to be tough, so it’s all about getting some momentum.”
A renewed upturn in form has seen Dagg, once again bandied about as one of the best purveyors of the No 15 role in world rugby, and he sees his role constantly evolving. “The full back has to have a multitude of skills. He has to be a ball player, step in in that first receiver role or move out wide.”
Warming to his theme, Dagg continues. “From my perspective, a full-back has to be agile and play what he sees in front of him. He’s got to have a reasonable boot on him, be brave in the air and be a good finisher.”
Phew, so who are the best in the business? “There are some special players out there. The likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Mike (Brown), Israel Folau, Stuart Hogg and Ben (Smith) alongside me with the All Blacks are all pushing the role on. I’m pretty good mates with Mike Brown. He’s a quality player and I have some decent banter with him. He had a great Six Nations tournament.”
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First up however is this weekend’s tussle with England, which pits the World’s No 1 and No 4 sides together. “We are taking England pretty seriously. We had a tough loss against South Africa and I hate losing. The best thing about that game is that we fought till the end. We will never give up.”
These words will give little comfort for England, Scotland and Wales in the coming weeks.