Dagg's difficult journey to World Cup final

DIFFICULT JOURNEY: Israel Dagg at All Blacks training.
DIFFICULT JOURNEY: Israel Dagg at All Blacks training.

An innocuous punt, some searing pain in the right thigh and life for Israel Dagg in World Cup year suddenly lost its rosy sheen.

As the Crusaders fullback hobbled to the sideline against the Stormers on May 7 he had no way of knowing that simple act at Newlands had left his World Cup hopes teetering on a knife edge.

Dagg had ruptured a muscle in his right quadriceps and was immediately shipped from Cape Town back to Christchurch.

And he was to learn it was not just his Super campaign that was finished; the World Cup dream was no certainty, either.

Dagg didn't just have to sprint against the clock to prove his fitness to All Blacks coach Graham Henry, he also had to wait until the team's medical staff discovered a similar injury to study.

And that, said Crusaders' backs coach Daryl Gibson, created further doubts as to whether Dagg would be fit for the tournament.

"At the time that injury was so rare that no-one could put a time frame on it,'' Gibson noted. "The doctors and Pete Gallagher (All Blacks' physio), they combed the world trying to find a similar case who had such an injury, how long it takes (to recover) and what they needed to do.''

Eventually examples were discovered in the American NFL and Australian AFL, answers were sought and Dagg was booked in for surgery.

Then he began the tedious task of working his way back to full fitness and overcoming the uncertainty about whether he could win back Henry's trust.

"Doubts crept into my mind and there was adversity and all that sort of thing,'' Dagg admitted yesterday. "I just had to do everything right, lots of strengthening and when I got my opportunity I had to prove I was capable of doing the job.''

Firstly, however, he had to get fully fit.

To help ease the burden his mother, Horiana, moved to Christchurch to do the household chores as his girlfriend was in France and his team-mates, because the earthquakes had knocked out AMI Stadium, were out of the city every weekend.

"All of that (recovery time) was a little bit of an unknown,'' Gibson added. "It was a little bit remarkable - and particularly the quick time frame in which he has come back. That alone and seeing him out there playing is testament to the management from the medical staff and his own discipline.

"You need that self discipline to do your rehab and all those sorts of things - they are often unseen.''

His chance came when he starred in his comeback match against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth in August and a few days later he was named in the World Cup squad. Even if Mils Muliana had not suffered his shoulder injury the chances of ousting Dagg from the No 15 jersey for tomorrow's final against France at Eden Park would have been slim.

Dagg, 23, born in Marton but now living in Hawke's Bay, joined the Crusaders this season after a couple of years at the Highlanders and brought an expectation he would add another arrow to their attack.

Yet his start to the season was a slow burning affair; slowly his talent took over and in his last couple of Super appearances his class began to surface.

He also had to sharpen his off-field discipline.

"Absolutely. I think it was the case of a bit of a rough diamond that slowly, as he got more experience and time as a professional, he just had to realise how good he could be,'' Gibson said.
"It is about creating those habits and making sure you are doing all you can to prepare yourself well. And with the All Blacks you are surrounded by people who are doing that on a regular basis, and it really highlights someone who is not doing it. It is a case of being in the majority or being in the minority.''

Fairfax Media