Hawke's Bay look to fullback to spark Shield tilt
It's been a long time between drinks for Hawke's Bay fullback Israel Dagg.
His province is hoping his first appearance for the Magpies since a brief cameo off the bench in 2011 will bring the Ranfurly Shield home to Napier.
Dagg's demotion from the All Blacks starting side has seen him released for Hawke's Bay's match against Counties-Manukau in Pukekohe.
Magpies coach Craig Philpott said his presence at training this week had already sent the confidence levels of his teammates through the roof.
''He's a massive boost to the guys around him. He's an easy man to play alongside,'' Philpott said.
Indeed, it is not hard to imagine Dagg combining with inventive first five-eighth Ihaia West on the counter attack, or chiming in outside centre Robbie Fruean.
Dagg has a point to prove after being replaced by Ben Smith as the All Blacks first choice No 15 this June.
Since his test debut in 2010, the 29-year-old has been a stranger to his province making just three starts (in 2010) and his cameo against Bay of Plenty the following year.
For his teammates, today's challenge represents the chance to avenge their Shield loss to Counties-Manukau in Napier last season when their own reign was cut short at just six days.
But for Dagg it is an opportunity to show All Blacks coach Steve Hansen just how badly he wants his test jersey back.
In an interesting quirk, Counties-Manukau will also be looking to their fullback for some inspiration with Tim Nanai-Williams returning to captain the side after missing the first two matches following the birth of his child.
It promises to be a cracking match. Neither side has entirely convinced over the first two weeks of the competition.
Counties looked vulnerable to counter attack in holding off Otago 29-25 last week and lack lustre in drawing with Taranaki in week one.
On paper though, the Steelers have a side that could cut loose at any moment with wings Sherwin Stowers and Frank Halai and the midfield of Bundee Aki and Re Lee-Lo.
Championship side Hawke's Bay come into the match on a high after a valuable win over Taranaki. A second consecutive Premiership scalp would be gold.
The Magpies backline also appeals with West, Andrew Horrell, Fruean and Richard Buckman providing plenty of experience and veterans Jason Shoemark and Matt Berquist in reserve.
The battle up front looks an even one and in the end it could come down to which side embraces the pressure of the moment.
Hawke's Bay coach Craig Philpott said his senior players had passed on stories about last year's brief Shield tenure to the younger players and there was a collective will to write another chapter.
However, the main focus was on knocking over another Premiership side and keeping their Championship aspirations on track.
The Dominion Post