Steve Hansen puts acid on axed Dagg to step up
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has delivered unwanted fullback Israel Dagg a resounding message around the need to respond to the challenge he now faces from the in-form Ben Smith.
Hansen today explained his decision to drop Dagg for the first time since he assumed the All Black No 15 jersey in 2011 and made it crystal clear that Smith has set a new standard at the back.
"Israel hasn't lost any ground," Hansen said when challenged on his oft-stated philosophy that injured All Blacks don't lose ground while they're sidelined.
"We see Israel's form where it was, but what's happened is another guy has come in and actually gone to another level. That's the challenge for Izzy now he's fit - he's got to lift his game from where it was.
"It's been a really high standard, and I don't think he's ever played a bad game for the All Blacks. But we wouldn't be doing our job right for the team if we didn't pick Ben at fullback on his performances in the last two tests.
"They were just sensational."
Hansen named a mostly predictable team to face the Wallabies in Saturday's Bledisloe and Rugby Championship opener in Sydney, with Wyatt Crockett in for the sidelined Tony Woodcock at loosehead prop, and Conrad Smith back at centre after missing the last test against England with a fractured thumb.
But it was the retention of Smith at fullback - his preferred position - at the expense of a fit-again Dagg which has raised the most eyebrows - if only because of Hansen's previous loyalty to players returning from injury.
But the coach said this was "a pretty easy decision" because of what Smith had shown in two pretty special performances at No 15 against the English.
"His counter-attacking is a big thing," Hansen said when asked to nominate the qualities that had seen Smith surpass Dagg.
"Both are really good in the air, both are good at putting people into space, but what we saw in the English games with Benny back there was his ability to bring the ball back was superior to Israel's."
The final nail in Dagg's coffin came when Cory Jane delivered a timely reminder of his class on the right wing in the third test against England back in June.
"Cory was outstanding in that game, back to his old self and world-class, so that made the decision a little bit easier," he added.
Hansen wasn't mincing his words either when he talked about Dagg's to-do list now.
"It's pretty clear what his challenge is. If he wants to get back in he's got to raise his game. That's a great challenge for him, and he's accepted that challenge."
Dagg's problem is going to be a) getting the stage on which to prove his readiness, and b) relying on Smith having a bad day at the office somewhere along the way.
"Just like everybody else, you have to wait for your opportunity," said Hansen. "That's the hard part. But that's life, isn't it? You give a sucker an even break, he takes it, and that's tough. But competition is a good thing."
Hansen also clarified Liam Messam's omission from the squad which travelled to Sydney this afternoon.
"Liam had a really big Super 15 and we just felt if we could get four weeks where we just work on him without having to think about preparing for a game we could get some good work into him.
"He doesn't get too many opportunities to get that. He goes on the end-of-year tour he certainly won't have a pre-season, and he'll again have a heavy workload with the Chiefs next year."
Hansen has also elevated two props at different stages of their development because of the strep throat suffered by Charlie Faumuina that sees him miss the trip to Sydney.
Crusader Joe Moody gets a spot on the bench covering loosehead, after having his first national callup last year wrecked by a broken leg, while Highlander Kane Hames is part of the backup brigade, reflecting his rapid rise this season.
Hansen said Moody was a "strong man, good scrummager and good around the park", while circumstances had meant Hames' future was upon them quicker than anticipated.
Among Hansen's unavailable troops, lock Patrick Tuipuloti has a high ankle sprain that needs more time, while Faumuina should be over his illness by next week's return fixture in Auckland.
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?