Rugby: Dagg's improving season matches his team

By Kris Shannon

Israel Dagg. Photo / APN
Israel Dagg. Photo / APN

Israel Dagg's season seems to be progressing with the fortunes of the Crusaders - and just as well considering tonight's opposition.

Dagg experienced a slow start to the Super 15 but has appeared back to his old self in recent weeks, coinciding with yet another push to the playoffs from his team.

The Crusaders host the Bulls in a qualifying final tonight, with the winner advancing to play either the Stormers or the Chiefs and the loser putting away the boots for another Super season.

Standing between the Crusaders and the chance to play in a second straight final are a sturdy opposition. The Bulls have beaten their hosts nine times in 21 attempts - an admirable record against the most dominant side in Super Rugby history.

They bring a renewed physicality and the confidence gained from emerging triumphant in the sides' last encounter in April - a match marred by unfounded eye-gouging allegations levelled at the Crusaders.

But two things, in particular, bode well for the Crusaders - a city which has made a mockery of all-comers from the Republic, and the form of Dagg.

The Crusaders have avoided defeat at the hands of South African opponents in Christchurch for 16 straight seasons. Not since the inception of Super Rugby in 1996, when a last-placed Crusaders were defeated by Northern Transvaal, has a South African side left Canterbury with a win.

While the Bulls have ended the Crusaders' season three times in the last five years, that fact is rendered somewhat irrelevant considering the Pretoria-based team have lost their last seven trips to the Garden City.

It's enough to leave the Crusaders' players in a brash mood before the game, though that self-assuredness should be nothing new for their fullback.

For Dagg, that is usually the default disposition - full of smiles and a belief to match his ability. But it was a different Dagg for the early staged of the campaign, strangely absent for the try-scoring column and atypically quiet as the Crusaders lost three of their first six games to sit mid-table.

The Crusaders, as is their wont to do, embarked on a run of eight wins in their last 10 games, helped in part by she return of the Dagg who forced Mils Muliaina out of the All Blacks' World Cup-winning team.

"It was a bit of a slow start but things are flowing along well," Dagg said. "I'm just going out there and trying to do the basics well, not trying to push too many passes or doing any miracle things.

"I'm just playing with some enthusiasm and being happy. It's feeling good at the moment."

The Crusaders will hope Dagg maintains that feeling for another few weeks. In all likelihood, a win this weekend will be followed by two tricky away trips to attempt an eighth Super Rugby title.

While keeping the majority of his attention fixed on the fast-approaching Bulls, Dagg expressed an indifference about the destination of those trips.

"We don't care, really. If we have to go to Hamilton, we'll go to Hamilton. And if we have go to Cape Town, we'll go to Cape Town.

"To be the best, you've got to be able to travel well and play well."

Dagg wanted to take nothing away from the Bulls, though, and he described the match as no easy feat.

"They'll bring a lot of physicality - they're big boys and they're going to bring all of that. They're a quality team and we've just got to keep to our guns and nullify all their threats and hopefully we can go on from there."

- APNZ

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