Dagg vs Smith: Southern fullbacks go to war
Israel Dagg puts on a brave face when explaining his decision to withdraw from the All Blacks.
The 39-test fullback knew a sore patella tendon and a quadriceps muscle were responsible for a form slump but when Steve Hansen told him he wanted Ben Smith to wear his No 15 jersey his mind must have gone blank.
After starting the first test against England at Eden Park on June 7, Dagg was told to miss the remaining two internationals, and the Crusaders match against the Hurricanes, to get himself back to full fitness.
"It was tough but I felt it was the right thing to do," Dagg said when reflecting on Hansen's suggestion he step aside.
"I didn't want to be playing when I'm not 100 [per cent fit]. It's not any good for me or the team as well."
It was probably also a difficult decision for Hansen.
Since taking over as All Blacks coach after the 2011 World Cup he has been one of Dagg's biggest supporters, steadfastly refusing to ditch him when Smith's form for the Highlanders was lighting-up the Super Rugby competition.
This must have been an uncomfortable period for Dagg: Smith didn't fritter away the opportunity to start in his favoured position, getting slathered with praise for his performance in the second test in Dunedin.
The upside of the enforced break was it allowed Dagg to recover from the leg problems and he rediscovered his joy for the game during last weekend's 21-13 win over the Blues. The hesitancy on attack was replaced by hard-running into the line and he played like someone who had genuinely missed the fun of playing sport.
"You never want to have a couple of weeks off, especially when you are playing against England and for the All Blacks. But I was just trying to get my body right. I was playing at about 80 [per cent] all year and I didn't want to do that, you can't be doing that."
Saturday night's final regular season match against the Highlanders, who unlike the second-placed Crusaders need a win to qualify for the playoffs, will see Dagg and Smith go head-to-head at AMI Stadium.
If the Crusaders persist with the plan of spreading the ball wide to wing Nemani Nadolo, a strategy that involved Dagg getting into the front line, they could force the Highlanders defence to scramble and take Smith out by burying him in rucks.
While qualifying for the playoffs may add extra stress to Dagg's body, it also gives him more chances to prove why he should be recalled for the opening Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies in Sydney on August 16.
There is no easy solution to fixing his patella tendon because surgery is not an option. Instead Dagg manages the knee by icing it during the week and taking painkillers before games.
"It is always going to be sore, it is going to be niggly forever. I have just got to manage it and get through it. I have kind of figured out that pain is good for it.
"Maybe later in life when I am 60, sitting on the couch I might go get it [surgery], but not at the moment."
Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith has been hospitalised in Sydney with an infection after Sunday's loss to the Waratahs. A team spokesman said Smith was "doing well" and is expected to be discharged today. A decision on his availability to play the Crusaders would be made later in the week.