Dagg's new appreciation for All Blacks jersey
LIAM NAPIER IN JOHANNESBURG
Two years after claiming that unforgettable matchwinning try in Soweto, Israel Dagg is a changed man.
There's no chance the All Blacks fullback will prematurely rejoice while flirting with the deadball line against the Springboks this weekend.
A stern scolding from no less than four senior team-mates, straight after he finally scored the try that broke John Smit's heart in his 100th test, ensured Dagg won't showboat before sealing the deal again.
“It was a bit close,” Dagg recalls. “I was celebrating and yahooing, I didn't even know I was doing it.”
A lot has altered since the All Blacks last played in Soweto, where they needed two late tries in the final five minutes to steal an unlikely victory.
Dagg is a reflection of that progression.
“I'm different,” he admitted. “I'm older . . . I've been starting for the last couple of games. I guess back then I was a new kid on the block and new to this arena.”
Back then, in 2010, Dagg was an emerging star. He had potential, but, at that point, nobody quite realised how much, or whether it would be fulfilled.
The Hawke's Bay rookie was playing just his fifth test and replaced Joe Rokocoko on the wing when Ma'a Nonu broke free and put him away, leaving distraught Boks captain Smit clutching one boot as an unwanted memento.
“I was real tired and I only played 20 minutes,” Dagg said. “It's pretty tough at altitude. The first 15 minutes your lungs are burning and you've got that bloody sensation in your throat.”
Dagg swiftly released Mils Muliaina's long grasp on the No 15 jersey and has now cemented his role to a degree where he is considered world-class.
With time, and a few lessons absorbed, Dagg's appreciation for the black jersey has also grown dramatically.
So, too, has his ability to lift standards and perform at his best when it matters most.
It may have been a World Cup hangover - call it what you will - but Dagg didn't have the finest campaign with the Crusaders this year. He was well below his best for much of their disappointing season.
“Now people have played me a few times and figured me out, so it's a lot tougher these days,” he said.
Yet there's something about the spotlight that sees him rise to the occasion.
Dagg has returned to exceptional form in combination with the lethal All Blacks' back three, two of whom claimed five of the seven tries against Argentina.
“I was pretty jealous of all the wingers getting all the tries last week,” he said.
On Sunday, the 24-year-old earns his 21st cap and, while his cheeky swagger remains, there is a level of mature honesty not present previously.
“There's been a lot happen in the last two years,” he said. “I had my quad injury and then came back and played the World Cup. There's been a lot of ups and downs. It's pretty surreal that I'm starting for one of the best teams in the world.
"Being given the opportunity to wear this famous jersey is something I treasure. So many awesome players have played in it; Mils, Christian [Cullen], it's an amazing opportunity.”
Maybe it's been their tendency to kick frequently and give the All Blacks numerous counter-attacking opportunities, but Dagg seems to enjoy playing the Springboks - he has scored in three of the four encounters.
“They're a team that test you and put you under a lot of pressure.
"I know I'm going to get a lot of high balls. That's where you can find out a lot about yourself.”
He will hope this week is no different.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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