Crushing defeat Chiefs was perfectly timed
The week Israel Dagg decided to stay put also turned out to be the same one in which he made his biggest move of 2013. The All Blacks fullback is well and truly back on his game, as are his Crusaders.
The previously out-of-sorts Dagg was one of the stars of the Crusaders' statement-making 43-15 victory over defending champions the Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday night, and his coaches had no doubt his decision to stay with the southern franchise contributed hugely to a breakout performance.
Dagg has indicated he will stay with the franchise for the next couple of seasons, joining close friend Zac Guildford in doing so, and it was no coincidence to see both of the Hawke's Bay speedsters playing with a freedom that caused all sorts of problems for the Chiefs.
"He's made a decision, he wants to stay, and that's just made it easier," said coach Todd Blackadder yesterday. "He's got a house here in Christchurch, he's a bit more settled, and he understands himself a lot better with what he's been through the last couple of months.
"If anything it's just simplified things, and sometimes you just need to step back and smell the flowers, and having a different perspective on the same thing can create a different attitude. It's just good to see him running with the ball again and enjoying his rugby, and Zac is very much in the same boat."
Dagg's late-season rejuvenation after an at times sub-par season is huge for the Crusaders as they get set for a remarkable 12th straight playoff appearance. A regular-season finale win against the Hurricanes in Christchurch next Friday will clinch a home first-round game, and could even see them steal the Kiwi conference if the Chiefs leave Auckland pointless.
"He's gone through a lot, and it's not always easy with so many expectations," said Blackadder of his mercurial fullback. "He looks like he's back to being himself and just enjoying his rugby.
"It's good to see we have that belief again. As a team we've been through a bit this year, and not everything has gone our way, but it's good to see they've recommitted, and shown loyalty . . ."
Crusaders assistant coach Tabai Matson also pointed to a clear mindset allowing Dagg to finally express himself in the manner we've become accustomed to seeing.
"Israel is back to where we expect him to be," said Matson, "and in the grand scheme this is when we want him playing well.
"These things often go hand in hand when players are secure about where they're going to be. Often they can relax when there are no distractions, and be clear about the way you want to play. Then you get performances like that."
Dagg was far from a lone ranger as the Crusaders crushed the Chiefs with five tries in a complete performance. Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read were on fire for a dominant pack, Dan Carter continued his own late-season
resurgence and the unheralded midfield of Ryan Crotty and Tom Taylor got the job done brilliantly.
They made the table-topping Chiefs look second rate and passive, which has been no mean feat over the past couple of seasons.
"We needed to perform," added Blackadder. "In many ways they're the benchmark, and we had really good preparation, and got a really good outcome. But we're not getting too carried away with ourselves. They'll be disappointed with their attitude and performance.
"I'm just really pleased with the guys, and the fact we played well at home. But I expected us to. We've got a quality side and we really needed to put that performance together."
Matson tagged it easily the Crusaders' best performance of the year, and one his men were up for as they looked to continue their perfect home record.
"This was a line-in-the-sand performance," he said. "They've had the better of us recently, and to play so well against the top team, and transfer everything we'd done at training into a performance is just gold for a team."
It's a team now, adds Matson, that has the sort of belief needed as they aim for an eighth championship. But first there's a regular season to finish on Friday.
"If we stumble this week against the Hurricanes it's been a wasted effort. The boys were talking about it in the changing room, which is pleasing. The Hurricanes have nothing to lose and we know they've got the firepower so we have to be at our best again."