Israel Dagg odds on to retain All Backs No 15

17:00, Aug 11 2014
Israel Dagg
WORLD CLASS: Israel Dagg is expected to start at fullback for the All Blacks in Sydney.

For All Blacks with runs on the board, bad things don't happen when you're out injured - even if somebody steps into your boots and plays the house down, as Ben Smith did in Israel Dagg's stead in June.

So, despite the fact that Smith is clearly the best No 15 in New Zealand rugby, and that there are a truckload of options on the right wing, it would be a major surprise if Dagg wasn't restored to fullback for the much-anticipated Bledisloe and Rugby Championship opener in Sydney on Saturday night.

Dagg has been a consistently good performer for the All Blacks since claiming the fullback spot on a regular basis at the 2011 World Cup. Given the All Blacks lost one test in that span, it's understandable that there's a healthy loyalty factor weighing in his favour.

But Smith, who will start on the right wing if Dagg is restored to fullback, has certainly given the selectors plenty to ponder long term.

With Cory Jane, Charles Piutau and, at a pinch, Malakai Fekitoa all able to slot in on the right wing - not to mention Hosea Gear and probably Richard Kahui back in the mix next year - it doesn't take much to imagine the standout Highlander back in that No 15 jersey at some stage.

Assistant coach Ian Foster wasn't giving too much away when after a productive training session in the Auckland sun yesterday, but did reiterate the policy that you don't lose ground when you're laid up.


"That still applies, but it's just one of the variables you've got to consider," Foster said.

"Clearly we've got some tough choices to make there but it's the first test of the Rugby Championship and I'm sure whoever doesn't get on the park will get a chance at some point."

Foster said after being given time to rehab a knee injury following the first test against England in June, Dagg's results on return for the Crusaders had been impressive.

"He's come back and played really well for the Crusaders. On the other side, the guys who played those last two tests [against England] also played well. So we've got a tough decision to make and in some ways there's no wrong decision because we've got some good options."

The fact that Smith played so well on the right wing last year, before shifting in to cover centre on the tour, indicates the status quo from 2013 is likely to be the default option from the off.

"He's played very well on the right wing and he's played very well at fullback," said Foster of a player now one of the first All Blacks chosen each week.

"We've also got CJ [Jane] who has come back and found his form, and with Julian [Savea] and Charles, we've probably got two or three combinations we're happy to start with."

Asked what Dagg had shown since his return, Foster pointed out he'd been able to repair a knee injury that had hampered both his kicking and running game.

"We saw some great progress. He came back and looked a heck of a lot sharper. We think he still can go a little bit more but he's [heading] in the right direction."

Equally tricky will be the bench mix (Piutau or Fekitoa?), with coverage of No 12 especially problematic in Dan Carter's absence.

The All Blacks were fully fit (Steven Luatua had shaken off a battering in Friday's hitout, including a hyper-extended elbow) and well advanced in preparations for what's shaping as a Wallaby outfit with off-the-charts confidence for a team's that won just two of the last 20 Bledisloes.

"It's just Australian isn't it," Foster said. "They want to build confidence in themselves, and in some ways we're the same, but we just go about it in slightly different ways.

"Overall they feel they're in really good shape and it's our job to make sure we get in really good shape and at 8.05 on Saturday night we prove our point." Fairfax NZ