Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Dagg's imminent return from injury a poser for Hansen

Isreal Dagg. Photo / Getty Images
Isreal Dagg. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks' policy of injured players not losing their places when they return to fitness could be given its sternest test if Israel Dagg returns to the fold in sound condition following tomorrow's Super Rugby final.

Dagg's unavailability due to a knee injury after the first test against England opened the door to the No15 jersey for Ben Smith and the Highlander put in two outstanding performances in Dunedin and Hamilton as the All Blacks swept the series.

As Steve Hansen and company prepare for the first Rugby Championship test in Sydney in a fortnight, a match which doubles as a Bledisloe Cup showdown, the selection of fullback, and to a lesser extent right wing, could be among the most difficult.

The back three division is the most eagerly contested in the team, and with Charles Piutau, a wing or fullback, returning from a knee injury, it has become even more congested.

Smith, Dagg, Piutau, Julian Savea and Cory Jane, all quality players, are going for three positions. If Dagg does start at fullback against the Wallabies, Smith could play on the right wing, with Julian Savea almost a certainty for the left wing.

However, if Smith starts at fullback, it is hard to see how Dagg could force his way into the starting XV. Jane played well on the right wing in the third test against England in Hamilton. After a difficult, injury-disrupted season with the Hurricanes, he showed he still has the old instincts and another factor in his favour is the way he links with Savea, his Super Rugby teammate.

No matter the final make-up of the back three, it is almost certain that the All Blacks will want Smith on the field somewhere due to his work-rate, positional play and counter-attacking ability. Likewise, Savea has the left wing spot sewn up due to his tackle-breaking expertise which has resulted in 23 tries in 22 tests.

Smith, asked yesterday where he would prefer to play, said: "It doesn't worry me, I just enjoy being out there."

Hansen was giving little away, but confirmed he had a good idea of the 23 players in his match-day squad, fitness permitting. He did, however, hint at some difficult decisions ahead.

"Izzy is giving us something to think about - he's playing well again, and Bender [Smith] certainly played well when he was given his opportunity, so it will be an interesting conversation we have next week."

The All Blacks' injury policy, given by Hansen as a reason why loose forward Sam Cane was included in the extended squad instead of the in-form Matt Todd, gives players peace of mind during their rehabilitation and rewards them for their deeds in the jersey.

Hansen is a loyal coach, which helps with his popularity among his players. He will probably keep faith in Dagg once he returns from Crusaders duty, but the form and consistency of Smith means the competition for the No15 jersey will be intense for some time yet.

- NZ Herald

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