“I’ve been disappointed, you always want to be in the World Cup All Blacks squad, but what’s happened has happened,” said Israel Dagg after he was omitted from New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup squad last year.
“You never know, I could be over there in a couple of weeks, I’ve got to play like I’m still going to be involved.”
Dagg put on a brave face for the New Zealand media after he was omitted from New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup squad last year, but on the inside, he was hurting. He had tasted World Cup glory with the All Blacks before in 2011, and had since established himself as one of the best full-backs in international rugby, only to have his World Cup dream dashed by Steve Hansen and the New Zealand coaching staff.
But Dagg wasn’t the only one who was feeling the pinch of World Cup rejection. Both Cory Jane and Charles Piutau had also been overlooked for the All Blacks World Cup squad and both players had promptly moved on to fonder financial pastures in Japan and England respectively.
Dagg however stayed. He remained in New Zealand with the Crusaders and Hawke’s Bay. He refused to give up on his international career despite the emergence of the impressive Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, coupled with the ever present duo of Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
The Magpies utility could have commanded a very handsome fee for his services in the Japanese or European market but he stayed put. He removed the get out clause from his contract with the NZR, he knuckled down over the pre-season and placed all his focus on receiving an All Blacks recall, which he duly received during the summer.
“Last year I kind of thought ‘oh well, time’s up,'” Dagg told the New Zealand media before the All Blacks second test against Wales in Wellington (via TVNZ).
“But then I had to sit down and take a deep breath and reassess things and had a lot of time away from the game.
“I just wanted to get out there and play footy .. it’s awesome to be back in this environment and be given another opportunity.”
Dagg’s recall to the All Blacks starting XV came at the expense of another heralded star Julian Savea, who only eight months earlier was crowned as the Rugby World Cup’s top try scorer with eight tries in six games.
Dagg started at full-back for the All Blacks in the second Test against Wales, and ever since that moment, the 28-year-old has gone on to re-establish himself as a mainstay within the All Blacks squad, scoring nine tries from his last ten starts in black.
Only in New Zealand could a player who is on course to become the highest try scorer in international rugby history, be replaced by another player who has arguably been among the top three full-backs in world rugby over the last six years, but such is the All Blacks ruthless expectation of their own players.
On pace to become the highest scoring winger ever – doesn’t matter.
Star of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and one of the best utility backs in world rugby – doesn’t matter.
The All Blacks have created a unique team culture in which form trumps reputation, performance precedes ability. New Zealand consistently churns out players who have been widely heralded and provides them with an excellent platform to showcase their skills.
However, if they slip up, there’s no extending hand to pick them back up and place them back into the limelight. If you let your form or fitness drop, you’re gone, as both Dagg and Savea know all too well.
The duo are some of the finest outside backs New Zealand has ever produced but they’re also two of New Zealand’s ‘golden boys’, players who were widely tipped for success from a young age.
Both Dagg and Savea were both stars as schoolboy players and represented New Zealand Secondary Schools as well as underage sides and New Zealand Sevens.
They took the path reserved for only New Zealand Rugby’s most prodigious talents and continued all the way along until they reached World Cup glory.
Dagg in particular made headlines as an 18-year-old in 2006 when he became the first schoolboy player to be selected for Hawke’s Bay since Danny Lee made his debut for the province in 1994.
The Magpies struggled in Dagg’s debut season with just three wins from nine games in their return to the NPC’s first division, but Dagg shone, and was soon picked up by the New Zealand Sevens side where he would play for two seasons before signing with Glenn Moore’s Highlanders in 2009.
Dagg would score three tries in 13 games for the Highlanders in his debut season before improving his record to five from nine in his second season in Dunedin.
His strong form for the Highlanders earned him an All Blacks call up against Ireland in 2010, and he would soon engage in a head-to-head battle with former Chiefs utility Mils Muliaina for the New Zealand number 15 jersey.
Muliaina would ultimately win the battle, and would end up going on to be the Tri-Nations leading try scorer with four scores from six games, but Dagg had established himself as real threat from the bench in the tournament scoring game sealing tries against South Africa in both Wellington and South Africa.
Dagg’s last minute try in Johannesburg really helped announce himself to the world of international rugby but it also earned the Marton native a starting place on the wing for New Zealand’s final Tri-Nations game against Australia in Sydney.
The All Blacks would steal a 23-22 win thanks to a late try from Kieran Read, but for Dagg, the starting berth helped set up a fantastic 2011 season in which he would become a cornerstone of the All Blacks World Cup campaign.
Dagg started in five of New Zealand’s seven games at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and was the second top try scorer of the tournament. He started at full-back in the historic final at Eden Park and was also named as one of the five best players of the tournament by the IRB.
The Crusaders flier would then go on to play in 37 of New Zealand’s next 46 games between World Cups, playing a pivotal role in the All Blacks 2012, 2013 and 2014 Rugby Championship triumphs.
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However, 2015 was a forgettable year for Dagg. He played in just five games for the Crusaders in Super Rugby due to a niggling calf injury, and entered the international break undercooked, making just three appearances before being overlooked for the Bledisloe Cup clashes against Australia at the start of August.
He was quickly overtaken by debutantes Waisake Naholo, who miraculously overcame a broken leg in time for World Cup selection, as well as Nehe Milner-Skudder, who won over selectors with a dazzling brace on debut against the Wallabies followed by a strong performance in the return fixture a week later at Eden Park.
The emergence of Naholo and Milner-Skudder ultimately cost Dagg his place in the All Blacks World Cup squad. Dagg had been a constant presence in the three years leading up to New Zealand’s World Cup defence, but a lack of gametime, and an underwhelming performance against South Africa in Johannesburg ultimately cost him his place.
Gutted to not be in the RWC2015 team but congrats and all the best @AllBlacks men.. it's been a hell of a journey cheers
— Israel Akuhata Dagg (@izzy_dagg) August 30, 2015
As alluded to earlier in this piece, Dagg went back to New Zealand following his World Cup omission and played in the NPC with Hawke’s Bay, where he scored four tries in six games for the Magpies.
Dagg had a big point to prove in light of his World Cup exclusion, but his NPC campaign was cut cruelly short when he dislocated his shoulder in a Ranfurly Shield game with Auckland in September.
Dagg’s year was finished. He required season ending shouder surgery and whatever slim hopes he had of being drafted into New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup squad had vanished.
By this stage he needed to get away from rugby. He and his wife Daisy booked a four-week overseas holiday to the United States, Bahamas and Mexico. It was a much needed break for Dagg who failed to realise New Zealand had even won the Rugby World Cup until he stepped on a cruise ship in the Bahamas.
Dagg had starred in New Zealand’s drought breaking World Cup campaign in 2011, and here he was on a cruise ship in the Bahamas with no interest in how his beloved All Blacks were faring.
Professional rugby had grinded him down and he needed to get away from it all.
“You play this game for six years and everything and it can be a bit repetitive and you kind of can go from day to day,” Dagg told Richard Knowler of Stuff.co.nz in May.
“I would by lying to you if I said I didn’t lose a bit of love for the game, I lost a little bit.
“I had six months off (following his injury) and I am really excited just to play some footy again.”
Dagg’s excitement was reflected in his performances with the Crusaders. He marked his return to Super Rugby with a stunning two try brace against the Jaguares in Christchurch, and would go on to score five tries in ten appearances whilst averaging over 90 running metres a game.
He was the form outside back of the competition alongside Chiefs livewire Damian McKenzie, and his recall to the All Blacks in the summer was well deserved.
He may have been excluded for the first Test against Wales in June, but just as he did in 2010 after scoring the game winning try against South Africa in Johannesburg, once he got back into the All Blacks starting team, he never looked back.
And for international defences, the sight of Israel Dagg galloping towards the try line with his eyes fixated on scoring is one of the scarier sights in all of rugby.
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