Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: A dramatic comeback for Dagg

A Ranfurly Shield victory, a triumphant return to Hawkes Bay, friends and family and more home-cooked meals that he can manage, a recall to the All Blacks - as a comeback, Israel Dagg's has been a dramatic one.

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All that remains now is for Dagg to take his opportunity against Argentina on his old stomping ground of McLean Park, because if he does he will put the pressure straight back on Cory Jane to force his own way back into an increasingly competitive back-three division.

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Dagg's week from heaven began at Pukekohe's EcoLight Stadium last Saturday where he helped his Hawkes Bay team to their Shield win over Counties. One of the more important texts he received afterwards was from All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster, which read something like: "Congrats", and "Behave".

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On Monday it was Foster who gave Dagg the news he had been craving after being left out of the match day squads against Australia in Sydney and Auckland. "You're starting at fullback."

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"To be honest, it's just great to get a start again and to get the opportunity to play with this team," Dagg said. "It's always tough when you're watching, but it's tough at the top and we've got some great players in this team who do their jobs really well. I'm excited to get out there.

"Obviously I've had a few niggles this year which gave another guy [Ben Smith] an opportunity and he's pretty classy, a quality player, but that's rugby and I've got an opportunity.

"It feels like it's my first game again."

Jane, Dagg's room-mate during the Bledisloe Cup fortnight when his match-day role was confined to water boy, is the casualty this time and through no fault of his own.

Dagg has sympathy - and empathy - for his teammate's predicament but such is the competitiveness among the outside backs, that there is no room for sentiment.

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Julian Savea virtually selects himself on the left wing such is his ability to create something from nothing and try-scoring record for the All Blacks - 24 in 24 tests - and if fit Ben Smith is currently a guaranteed starter at either fullback or right wing. That leaves one spot open and if Dagg nails it in what are likely to be difficult conditions tomorrow, he must be favoured to keep the No15 jersey a week later against the Springboks in Wellington and beyond.

An in-form back three of Savea, Dagg and Ben Smith covers all bases in terms of kicking game, set piece attack and counter. Also waiting in the wings is Charles Piutau, an excellent performer for the All Blacks during his limited chances last year.

"We felt that Dagg needed an opportunity," coach Steve Hansen said. "He's been working hard and we know he's a world class player so here's an opportunity for him to play in an environment where he should be really excited and we should get a good performance from him."

Dagg, who opened the door for Ben Smith due to a nagging knee injury which impacted on his confidence and form, has shown when bouncing back for the Crusaders that he is often at his best when responding from a setback.

And quite rightly, he is prepared to play a patient game against the Pumas, a physically tough team with a defence which takes time to break down.

"If I get an opportunity to counter, I'm going to run," Dagg said which sounded like a statement of intent.

"I'm not going to try to do anything special, run it from my own goal line or anything like that, but if that opportunity happens to have a good crack I will."

A nation, a province, and a collection of friends and family at the game which will number about 40, expects.

- NZ Herald

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