Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Israel Dagg finds passion for the game once again

New-found enthusiasm crucial in earning discarded fullback an All Black recall.
Israel Dagg of the All Blacks takes a pass during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Dillworth College. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Israel Dagg of the All Blacks takes a pass during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Dillworth College. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Israel Dagg, back in the All Blacks fold again, credits a rediscovered love of the game for putting him there.

He has played only the past six matches for the Crusaders this season due to his recovery from shoulder surgery but has performed with a freedom and excitement which were conspicuously absent last year.

It helps that the red and blacks, on top of the Super Rugby ladder, are playing with similar gusto, and Dagg is also thankful his team's form has helped highlight his own. It is a symbiotic relationship, and one feels Dagg, if he remains injury free, will be increasingly important as Todd Blackadder's men seek to retain top spot after the international break.

With fullback Ben Smith and utilities such as Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade at coach Steve Hansen's disposal, there was no room for an out-of-form Dagg at the World Cup. His disappointment at missing out was compounded by a bad shoulder injury while playing for Hawkes Bay in September, but rather than turn him off the game, the time on his own in rehabilitation and then a proper pre-season - rather than the usual few weeks off for the All Blacks - has helped him turn a corner.

"I had a big pre-season with the trainers, working really hard - running up and down the paddock every day, all day, every week," he said. "Lots of rehab. To be honest, I had a lot of time by myself to get my mind right and find the love of why I play the game.

"Probably over the last couple of years, I lost that, I took it too seriously. I lost my smile and the love, and I wasn't having fun. And when you're thinking too much [on the field] you're missing opportunities.

"When you're young, you do no analysis, you don't look at any other teams. You see a hole, you run at it, and if you see space, you try to get the ball there. I just tried to keep it simple this year and if I got the ball, I backed myself and was confident."

That stripped-back approach has seen Dagg score five tries in those six games for the Crusaders, as well as provide three try assists. He leads the charts in terms of average carries per match, and is near the top with average metres with the ball.

His enthusiasm and fitness are seeing him heavily involved in games. The 27-year-old has always been brilliant under the high ball, and now he is returning it too and often through the opposition defence. He is an attacking threat from deep or first receiver in partnership with first-five Richie Mo'unga. Dagg's defence has also improved, a fact noted by Hansen when the squad was announced.

"The hard work starts now, though," Dagg said. "Making the squad is awesome but the next thing is playing in that jersey and representing your country and getting out there with Reado [Kieran Read] and the boys. I owe it to the Crusaders. They've been playing some exciting footy and they've given me an opportunity to play the same way, so I'm happy and grateful."

On 49 tests, it's difficult to know when Dagg will reach his half-century for the All Blacks, with Smith ahead of him and rated one of the world's best fullbacks. Unlike Smith, Dagg is unlikely to be seen as a wing option but he is firmly back in the frame now and has given himself a chance.

"I didn't really expect it," he said of his call-up. "You always want to be confident you're going to get there but whatever happens, happens. I've felt that disappointment before, so I just wanted to keep chipping away and working hard."

- NZ Herald

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