A fully fit Israel Dagg has failed to win back his place at fullback for the opening Bledisloe test of the year.
The 39-test Dagg has failed to make the 23-man squad at all with Beauden Barrett covering fullback from the bench and Malakai Fekitoa viewed as the man who can be injected to provide some punch and X-factor later in the piece.
The composition of the back three was arguably the All Blacks' only area of uncertainty for this Saturday's clash in Sydney and the selectors have rewarded the combination of Ben Smith, Cory Jane and Julian Savea who played so brilliantly in the last test of the June series against England.
The decision carries an element of surprise as expectation was high that Dagg, who was forced to miss the last two tests due to a nagging knee complaint, would be restored to the No 15 jersey which he effectively made his own at the 2011 World Cup.
Head coach Steve Hansen has been reluctant in the past to change pecking orders as a direct result of injury: usually first choice players who are ruled out of action are restored once they recover.
But Dagg's case is a little unusual in that it's debatable whether he's been the country's best fullback for some time now. Smith was the form Super Rugby fullback throughout 2013 - a year in which Dagg's form for the Crusaders was patchy to the extent he was dropped mid-season.
Smith's ability to play on the wing and the long-term injury to Jane meant the All Blacks retained Dagg in the No15 jersey where his form in the test arena was good without being quite as impressive as it had been in previous years.
Dagg at fullback and Smith and Savea on the wings gave the All Blacks the range of skills they were after. The magic came from Smith and Savea, while Dagg pitched in with his bravery under the high ball, exceptional positional play and huge right boot.
The story in 2014 has been largely similar - with Smith again outstanding for the Highlanders and Dagg patchy to moderate. The All Black selectors backed themselves once more to bring Dagg back to the boil in the June series but in the one test he did play, he was poor. His basic skills let him down and while the selectors never said as much, they were almost relieved to be able to leave Dagg out of the next two tests on the basis his leg needed to be rested.
The sad truth about Dagg is that it feels like a long time since he was so electrically and regularly carving through opposition defences at full tilt - twisting and stepping and leaving them grasping at nothing. Smith has been doing exactly that, as has Savea while Jane provided a reminder in Hamilton that he is a world class operator with an intriguing range of skills that are hard for defences to pick.
"It was a tough team to select in many ways because we have a lot of players in good form," said Hansen. "But in the end we selected the group that we felt could get the job done.
- APN News & Media
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