All Blacks: Soweto holds special memories for Dagg

By Michael Brown

Israel Dagg scored a dramatic, late try to give the All Blacks a famous 29-22 victory over South Africa in 2010. Photo / Getty Images.
Israel Dagg scored a dramatic, late try to give the All Blacks a famous 29-22 victory over South Africa in 2010. Photo / Getty Images.

The land now occupied by Soccer City has hosted some fairly significant occasions. It was the site of Nelson Mandela's first speech in Johannesburg after his release from prison, the venue for anti-apartheid campaigner Chris Hani's funeral and hosted the historic 2010 Fifa World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.

The stadium on the outskirts of Soweto also holds special memories for the All Blacks, and for Israel Dagg in particular.

The 24-year-old scored a dramatic, late try after a scything Ma'a Nonu break to give the All Blacks a famous 29-22 victory in 2010.

It was the first rugby game played at the ground and silenced the 94,033 fans who packed into it. It also virtually reduced the Springboks, who had played on emotion all week given it was also John Smit's 100th test, to tears.

The sides meet there again on Sunday morning (NZT), with the circumstances a little different. New Zealand claimed the Tri Nations with victory in 2010, but go into this weekend's match having wrapped up the Rugby Championship after their 54-15 demolition of Argentina in La Plata last weekend.

It might mean the pressure has eased, but the All Blacks set high standards and want to continue their winning streak that presently sits at 15.

Things have changed for Dagg, too. He came off the bench in 2010 when he replaced Joe Rokocoko on the wing but, since that game, has started all 15 tests he's played in. The injury and subsequent shift to Japan of Mils Muliaina helped, but Dagg was already on the way to establishing himself as the country's premier fullback and might now be considered the world's best No 15.

He is not only quick and incisive but is also safe and secure as the last line of defence. Despite this, he knows he will come in for special attention this weekend with a barrage of up-and-unders from the Springboks. He expects nothing less, even though South Africa are likely to play a slightly more expansive game with Johan Goosen preferred at first five-eighths instead of the metronomic Morne Steyn.

"We have to expect the unexpected this weekend," Dagg told reporters. "But we still expect the high balls.

"We pride ourselves under the high ball. In the past they have been pretty good at it and put us under a lot of pressure. But we enjoy it. It's something we have worked on really hard because they can punish you when you drop the ball and make a few errors. Hopefully this week we can get it right.

"Being at altitude, it's going to go a lot higher and they are going to put us under pressure. We just have to work as a unit."

The preferred back three of Dagg, Cory Jane and Julian Savea have established themselves as a classy outfit and Jane (three) and Savea (two) scored five of the seven tries against the Pumas.

"I was a bit jealous," joked Dagg, who has scored 13 tries in his 20 tests. "But I just try to do my thing for the team. I just like getting my hands on the ball and having a bit of fun."

He didn't look to be enjoying himself earlier this year when he endured a form slump playing for the Crusaders, but the swagger and strut are back.

The All Blacks, too, go into this weekend's test in a good space after their best performance of the year last weekend against Argentina.

But South Africa are confident too, after their 31-8 defeat of Australia at Loftus Versfeld, and it adds to what will be an intriguing encounter.

All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu said beating the Springboks in South Africa was still among the most treasured things in New Zealand rugby.

"It's always the test we look forward to, playing South Africa here, because it's a good way to see where we are at," he said. "[Beating them is] not easy to do.

"[Playing at Soccer City] just adds to it."


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