Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Ben Smith has edge at fullback

Dagg still doesn’t look razor sharp and the All Black selectors need to be pragmatic.

Ben Smith and Israel Dagg are the two options at fullback for the opening Bledisloe Cup test. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith and Israel Dagg are the two options at fullback for the opening Bledisloe Cup test. Photo / Getty Images

The All Black team to play the Wallabies at Sydney on August 16 is: Fullback Ben Smith ...

I know the selectors are big on returning players to the team once they have recovered from injury but they also need to be pragmatic in their decisions.

Smith was exceptional at fullback throughout Super Rugby and continued those standards when he was asked to step up for the last two tests with England.

In front of his home fans in Dunedin he showed his range of remarkable talents to help the All Blacks squeak past England 28-27 and was once again constructive in their decisive final test victory. He replaced Israel Dagg, who was battling a leg problem and needed a rest to get in shape to challenge for the Rugby Championship.

Dagg has returned. However, he does not look as sharp as his squad rival.

Dagg seems uncertain about his approach.

Same with Charles Piutau. When he returned to the Blues after his knee injury, his tactical choices around kicking and counter-attack were muddled and he was easy to defend.

There does not seem to be that sort of clutter when Smith wears the No15 jersey. He does not possess the long kicking game Dagg and Piutau bring but his punting is accurate and he has no New Zealand peer in his kick-chase return. Smith has the speed to play on the wing, where he has been super-reliable. His energy and pace to defend across the backfield at fullback and use on counter-attack or planned moves is a huge weapon for the All Blacks' style.

As you would expect, All Black coach Steve Hansen has offered blurred views when asked whether Dagg or Smith would start at fullback against the Wallabies.

Hansen's not going to give them any more time to digest his side than he needs to. He has five players to pick for his wings and fullback. Only one, left wing Julian Savea, is a certainty to face the Wallabies.

Any combination of Dagg, Smith, Piutau and Cory Jane can occupy the other wing and fullback duties and Hansen is not going to give the Wallabies any extra time to evaluate his plans for their world record tilt at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

The Wallabies will use the athletic gifts of Israel Folau at fullback. He posed more problems than Dagg provided during the absorbing Super Rugby final last weekend.

That performance did not offer conclusive reasons to duck a personal rematch. However, when Smith's stellar work is thrown into the puzzle, Dagg's support around that selection table may be easing.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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