Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Dagg knows it's D-day at Eden Park

Fullback's confidence has taken a hit this year but his sights are firmly on a revival

One of the season's great unresolved rugby issues will get a different inspection tomorrow at Eden Park.

Israel Dagg's glittering moments in 2013 do not make for a long list. Instead he has provoked regular questions: why has the fullback struggled and how will those issues be resolved?

The All Blacks selectors are convinced they can solve Dagg's dip in form and have picked him for the opening test duty against France.

On form, that selection does not square up. Ben Smith and Charles Piutau have better claims but while both are in the expanded test group, Dagg gets first crack at his favoured duties.

Confirmation came yesterday, on his 25th birthday, as the selectors unveiled a side with a back three of Dagg, Smith and Julian Savea.

All year coach Steve Hansen made it clear he and his colleagues want to persist with those who toured Europe late last year and were still turning out in the Super 15.

Others heading offshore like Hosea Gear and Tamati Ellison were overlooked for domestic talent.

So Dagg's selection was no surprise. His lack of form, however, remains perplexing.

A curious piece of non-action a week ago seemed to summarise his credentials this season. Dagg was caught flat-footed and Waratah flanker Michael Hooper burned him on the outside.

That happens. But when Dagg got back to help his teammates, he made a frail attempt to tackle and claim Hooper before he scored.

The actions of a man badly out of touch, or bereft of confidence? Both probably, as Dagg is a player who trusts the instincts which have delivered some superb moments in test rugby.

He started this year slowly and has rarely got out of that trough. Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder could not find the right switch to ignite his fullback and in exasperation and hope, plonked Dagg on the bench for a few games.

Responses varied but tomorrow Dagg gets a massive break. He knows it. He has been just as frustrated as spectators.

"I have been given a big opportunity this weekend and I just have to go out there and repay the selectors," he said. "It has been frustrating and that's all I can say really."

Dagg could not enlighten us with any clues for his problems, none he wanted to divulge anyway as his eyes darted around the room. His theories were as solid as his recent defence.

His confidence had taken a hit but his sights were on a revival.

All Black selection had given him some of that faith and in this team, he just had to concentrate on his work as part of powerful unit.

"I just have to put that behind me now and focus on these three tests for my country. I have been given an opportunity this weekend to prove to myself really, first, that I have a right to be here," he said.

It said a great deal that he was reinvigorated by the attacking plans of the All Blacks. He did not criticise those concepts at the Crusaders but the inference was clear - they did not light his rugby fire.

Dagg accepted he had a duty to produce professional sporting standards and that was something he was struggling to do consistently. Fullback was the position in which he felt most able to contribute to those levels.

Fretting and worrying about his impact would be counter-productive. He needed to let his instincts flow.

"I don't want to think about it too much.

"Obviously it has been frustrating but I just have to move on and focus on this week and I have a big opportunity against the French, who I have played twice before," he said.

A stack of All Black coaching staff are on hand to help Dagg. His main go-to is Gilbert Enoka, the man tagged as the side's mental skills coach.

"We just chat about things and he is awesome."

The pictures and encouragement will have been about Dagg's talent and rekindling those gifts. Enoka has been around the All Blacks for more than a decade, mentoring and guiding players through strong patches and troubled times.

Often, he will just chat to players without them realising he is steering them towards better results. He is a father figure, a shoulder to lean on and talk through any situation.

Players feel comfortable they can unload about any fears, worries or anxiety without those concerns getting back to the selectors.

Most of all Enoka will have reminded Dagg about the 25 tests he has played for the All Blacks and the regular peaks in those performances. He will have laughed with him, pushed his positive memory buttons, caressed his self-esteem and encouraged him to trust his impulses.

Read more:
French starting over in challenge with best: No8
Savea keen to re-enter test arena after difficult year
All Blacks front row ready to front up

- NZ Herald

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