All Blacks sweating on Israel Dagg's injury; Steve Hansen: 'It doesn't look good'
The All Blacks' injury crisis is showing no signs of abating, with Israel Dagg the latest player set to join the ranks of the long-term absentees.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen revealed at his Thursday post-team naming press conference in Auckland, ahead of Saturday's test against the Springboks in Albany, that Dagg's ongoing knee problem has reached a point where it might require a major break from the game.
This comes on top of recent season-ending injuries to props Owen Franks and Joe Moody and utility back Jordie Barrett, as well as the decision by fullback Ben Smith to take a sabbatical that is seriously testing the side's depth in some areas.
On top of that they have seen experienced performers Aaron Cruden and Charlie Famuina depart for contracts in France, with halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow set to join them at season-end.
Dagg was not considered for Saturday's Rugby Championship test at QBE Stadium, replaced on the right wing by Nehe Milner-Skudder who last week in New Plymouth had his first hitout for the All Blacks since the 2015 World Cup final in London.
Hansen said they were in the process of compiling more information on Dagg's knee injury, with the 66-test wing continuing to experience pain post matches.
"It doesn't look great at this stage," said Hansen rather pointedly. "It looks like he's going to need some time away from the game. But until I get all the information it will be pointless me trying to tell you how long and what the problem is. Once we get that we'll let you know."
The All Blacks at least have plenty of cover in Dagg's specialist right wing position, with Milner-Skudder a strong performer there through the 2015 season, and Waisake Naholo also accomplished on that side of the field.
They also have Julian Savea working away furiously back in the provincial game with Wellington.
Hansen said the upside of any absence by Dagg was that it enabled Milner-Skudder, who missed the entire 2016 season because of a shoulder reconstruction, to re-establish himself in the test arena.
"It tests you, but we've got a lot of faith in the systems we have and whilst some of these guys are very new, they're surrounded by guys who have been around a long time," said Hansen of the injury situation.
"The culture of the team is strong and everyone is working hard together to try and get better. Someone's misfortune is another guy's opportunity. The attitude we've taken is yes, we've lost these guys through injury, and you throw in Bender's sabbatical, but its giving other people an opportunity and through that opportunity we'll grow some depth."
In terms of Milner-Skudder, who scored a try in his first test back since the 2015 World Cup last week in New Plymouth, Hansen wanted to see more of what he produced against the Pumas.
"He'll be back on the right side which will probably suit him a bit better, [though] he went well there [on the left]. He'll get high ball, and we expect him to catch that, and work with Damian [McKenzie] and Rieko [Ioane], so Damian is not having to cover everything with the high ball catch like he did last week.
"Those three guys need to work in tandem and make sure we're covering that backfield well. And if there's an opportunity to score a try, we want him to score it. In the past he's done that well."
The All Blacks have been hardest hit at prop, with their two regular starters now done for the season, and a lot of experience with them.
But in scrum guru Mike Cron they have a man that Hansen says is more than up to the challenge of turning Kane Hames, Dane Coles and Nepo Laulala into a competitive scrummaging unit in their first test start together.
"He's one of the best in the world, if not the best at what he does. Challenges like this force him to go into his box of tricks and make sure he has people up to speed quickly," said Hansen.
"He's gt a bit of talent to work with too. We're happy we've got good enough scrummagers so our set piece is OK and they're good in the lineout with their lifting. Where you probably miss out a little bit is that experience around the park because they haven't had the miles under them. But that will come."