RYAN VREDE writes that Israel Dagg enthrals and infuriates in equal measure.
In Dagg the All Blacks have rugby’s next superstar. He is a once in a generation player, capable of feats others only achieve when sound asleep, and he is able to brutally expose the fallibility of mere rugby mortals.
His running lines and body swerve mimic the legendary Christian Cullen, while his step, power at the tackle point and healthy disregard for the fear of failure amplify his threat. He is only 22 years old, and, ominously for those who will face him in the years ahead, he will improve technically, get fitter, stronger, quicker, more intelligent and he will mature emotionally.
I wrote recently that incumbent fullback Mils Muliaina represented the past, and Dagg a bright and promising future. On the evidence of his performances in the Tri-Nations it seems Muliaina has rekindled some of the spark that made him one of, if not the pre-eminent fullbacks in the modern game in his prime. Injury or a dramatic loss of form notwithstanding, he is likely to retain the starting berth ahead of Dagg. But it surely is just a temporary holding job because the irrepressible force that is Dagg can only be resisted for so long.
So why does Dagg infuriate? Because he is a vivid reminder of what the Springboks could have but, by choice, don’t. He is a game breaker and match winner in the mould of Frans Steyn.
Certainly there styles are markedly different. Dagg has a step that is capable of leaving would be defenders frozen – the Springboks found this out to their peril in Wellington – whereas Steyn relies more on his physicality to negotiate markers. But this is not a comparison of styles, rather a study of their value to their respective sides. They have the mentality of winners and the talent to execute what they envision in their minds, even if their skill is exhibited in different ways.
Players like Dagg and Steyn are priceless, but because of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ stubborn and outdated attitude towards selecting overseas-based players, the latter is sunning himself in the south of France when he should be playing a central role in a Tri-Nations title defence. For that De Villiers must be held accountable because he determined the standard by which he was wanted to be judged when he insisted, on numerous occasions, that he will look at local options first and if no player was found to be good enough, he would look abroad.
There are no South African-based fullbacks capable of adequately filling the void Steyn has left. After nine Tests Zane Kirchner has shown nothing to suggest he can offer anything that transcends the expected. Gio Aplon is an exceptionally gifted footballer, but concerns remain about his lack of height, particularly for a Test fullback. The Sharks’ 19-year-old Patrick Lambie has the makings of a wonderful player, but if a lack of height is a concern for the 1.75m Aplon, that same standard has to be applied to the 1.77m Lambie. De Villiers knows what he has in Conrad Jantjes, and it’s not a Frans Steyn.
De Villiers’ refusal to select Steyn cannot be tolerated any longer. More infuriating is that privately he knows he only has bb guns at his disposal in the position, while his ballistic missile is gathering dust in Paris. It’s time to dispose of his archaic selection policy and make the call to a player who has the capacity to exponentially increase the Springboks’ potency.