How Israel made it to the promised land

"When you see my boy," Israel Dagg's mother told me this week (with more than a hint of mischief in her voice), "tell him to ring his mama".

Ring mama? Ring mama?

Should I really ask the strapping All Black to ring mama?

That's what I'm thinking two days later as we sit in a hotel foyer, swapping small-talk.

Feigning naughtiness, eyebrows raised, Dagg asks: "I hear you spoke to my mum?"

"Sure did," I reply. "and guess what she told me?"

"I already know. I spoke to her on the phone a few hours ago. She told you to ask if I'd `Ring mama'."

For a second, there's silence and I wonder if some line has been crossed. Then Dagg smiles broadly. Cue laughter.

Cue feigned embarrassment.

Chalk one up to Mrs Dagg, and for that matter Israel, two people with penchant for a laugh, two people bound by a relationship (and here's where the story gets serious) deeper than the normal mother-son connection.

It's pretty standard these days for an All Black to give the jersey they played their first test in to their parents.

Their cap is a different story.

Last month Dagg gave both to his mother, to acknowledge all she has given him.

Dagg grew up in what his mentors and peers will say were "straitened circumstances".

Hiriana and Israel, two people with nothing to hide, put it rather more bluntly: "We were poor"; "It was pretty tough financially"; and "We didn't have much money or food".

It's all the more surprising then that the making of Dagg was an exclusive private school attended by the sons of Hawke's Bay's "old money".

Hiriana was approached by parents with sons already at Lindisfarne College, hoping they would send Israel, an extremely promising young sportsman, to the school.

The fees were too expensive for far more affluent families than the Daggs.

"But the more I thought about it the more I thought what an awesome opportunity it would be," says Hiriana.

The problem was they didn't have the cash.

"But Mum started to work some silly hours – nights and day shifts, weekends – to get me there," Israel explains.

"I had a partial scholarship but she had to come up with the rest and support my brothers and sister.

"It was pretty tough financially. We didn't have much money or food."

Hiriana worked for Hawke's Bay Hospital's psychiatric unit in Hastings, cramming between shifts to qualify as a nurse.

"I often worked Friday and Saturday nights, and then the Sunday afternoon shift to help with finances, to keep the whanau together and pay the bills.

"I had to keep that commitment to make sure he was going to stay there. At the same time we got a lot of support from the school and there were some awesome teachers and families who were very supportive.

"Israel got to go on lots of school trips when sometimes money for those things was a bit scarce. But they all pulled together and just took him and I really appreciated what a lot of the families did."

Despite initial reservations – "I was this Maori boy coming out of Wavell Place [south Hastings] going to this rich school were all the kids had everything they wanted. I was a bit shy and shocked" – Dagg thrived at Lindisfarne.

A teacher, Grant Gilbert, took him under his wing.

And in his second year at the school he was elevated into the first XV.

"He had three full years with us and scored somewhere around 650 points in those three years," said Gilbert. "He lit the rugby field up. Spectators stood up when the ball even looked like going near him."

Dagg was selected in the Hawke's Bay senior side when still at college and, after several eye-catching performances for the Magpies, was drafted by the Highlanders for the Super 14.

His form this year in his second Super rugby season was irresistible and was named in the All Blacks and now the kid from Wavell Place is one of world rugby's Next Big Things.

Those who know him best are not surprised that during his amazing ride he has remained grounded.

"You are in the sports business and you are probably cynical about these sportsmen," explains Gilbert.

"They are glib and say the right things and have been coached.

"But he is just a bright-eyed kid with tons of talent and it is really rewarding to see that recognised."

Nor are they surprised that Dagg, a goal-setter, has his sights set on a long career in black, but the first goal he wants to achieve is closer to home.

"I don't have any goals written down. I keep them in my head. And one I'm working on is to buy a house in Hastings so my parents can live in it.

"They are renting at the moment, and it would be nice to be able to sacrifice something for them, they way they did for me. Without them I wouldn't be here today talking to you."

Sunday Star Times