Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Israel embodies a spirit which a Christian began

Israel Dagg is on his way to becoming one of the All Black greats at fullback. Photo / Getty Images
Israel Dagg is on his way to becoming one of the All Black greats at fullback. Photo / Getty Images

The fullback evolution began to gather pace in the All Blacks with Fergie McCormick, Allan Hewson and then John Gallagher.

Where stodge had been the accepted norm and the safety-first playbook dominated for the men at the back of the All Black teams, the attacking platform began to gain more credence.

It went to another level when Christian Cullen soared into the All Blacks as a 20-year old and promptly scored a hat-trick of tries on debut against Samoa, before going one better in his next test against Scotland.

This was astonishing stuff in the mid-1990s and as riveting as the thunderous venom Jonah Lomu was unleashing out on the wing.

Cullen's brilliance came with his speed, balance and ability to change direction without taking his foot off the gas. He was unorthodox but so effective and exciting.

Now we are watching another man in a similar mould. Israel Dagg has worked his way into the fullback role where his attacking intent, opportunist skills and massive boot invite some comparisons with the Paekakariki Express.

Dagg has played 29 tests, half the tally Cullen amassed in his meteoric career before he was gone at 26 with a knee injury that dulled his sting and took him out of John Mitchell's selection book.

Cullen had lost some of the snap and acceleration that made him such an awkward man to claim in the open spaces and his impact was not as strong, as defences became more resolute.

He could also be caught out of position, but his footwork and speed were threats to any side. When the All Blacks had Lomu, Jeff Wilson, Frank Bunce, Tana Umaga, Glen Osborne and Doug Howlett to use around Cullen, they had a stack of potency. They all brought something different.

Cullen was not the greatest passer, he loved the tuck-and-run style that brought him such acclaim in sevens and which he transferred to the international stage.

Coaches tried to modify those instincts to suit the All Black team ethos and, while there was some change, Cullen was at his best when he decided to attack. If they were caught in the wrong position, the buzz-topped Cullen would just skin them with his body swerve, step or outboard shoes.

Since he left the game, Mils Muliaina grafted his breadth of talents into 100 tests, mostly at fullback, where his guidance, minimal errors and skill offered plenty of confidence to the men ahead of him.

The changeover has come with Dagg, another freewheeling kind of spirit who can light up games with his pace, stutter-step and intuitive decisions.

The extra-time try in 2010 to snatch the test from the Boks were a precursor to efforts in the World Cup and the Rugby Championship last season. Dagg has an eye for the spectacular and a nose for the tryline.

He was down on Super 15 form this year but picked up once the test programme started.

He has a kicking game, which was anathema to Cullen, and his breadth of vision and interplay with team-mates is broader. His front-on defence does not have the belting impact Cullen possessed and his sidestep may not be quite as freakish, but Dagg is making strong statements about his place in All Black fullback history.

Some of his work leading into last night's test in Wellington was to guide Crusaders team-mate Tom Taylor through the systems and plans.

"We have got to talk and make everyone comfortable," he said, "because in a Bledisloe decider, it can be pretty daunting."

He was sure Taylor's instincts and skills would dovetail neatly into the All Black patterns.

Motivation was all about the buzz of victory and continuing the hold they had on the famous Bledisloe trophy. The opposite brought all sorts of messy repercussions.

"I hate losing," Dagg said. "I just want to do my best. The Bledisloe means so much for us and I guess it means so much for Australia, that's why there's such a big contest. We just don't want to be the team that loses it so I want to really give it my all."

- Herald on Sunday

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