Dagg replaces Muliaina as NZ's leading fullback
Updated: September 21, 2011, 23:25
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) The torch was passed by the All Blacks selectors on Thursday, and nobody in New Zealand was anxious or surprised when Israel Dagg replaced Mils Muliaina as their No. 1 fullback.
The decision was emotional for coach Graham Henry because Muliaina is the second most-capped All Black ever on 98 tests, but neither he nor his fellow selectors could resist Dagg's quality performances in his only two tests this year and picked him to meet France this weekend in a World Cup pool match.
Muliaina, an All Black for eight years and the team's undisputed fullback for four of them, fell off his usual high standards this season and the New Zealand selectors could have picked him as a reliable safety net.
But Dagg, with all of eight caps, presented a thrilling attacking option. And the All Blacks don't play safe.
"It's a bit of an honor,'' Dagg said after the team was named on Thursday. "The guy's (Muliaina) been there, played 98 tests and I've been given the opportunity. I'm pretty excited about it. On Saturday, I've just got to go out there and repay the faith that the selectors have shown in me and hopefully go well.
"He's a good guy. He's talked to me about the game. We work closely during training. Everyone's in this for one job and that's to win each game. So there are no grudges or anything in the team.''
Henry has been amazed that Dagg is playing rugby this year, let alone for the All Blacks. Dagg thought his season was over in March when he tore his thigh muscle off the bone making a punt in the Super 15. He needed surgery immediately, and the injury was so uncommon that Dagg didn't know when he could return.
But in mid-August, intermittent appearances for his club and province were enough for him to be drafted by the All Blacks into the Tri-Nations match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth, where he was one of their few highlights in an 18-5 loss.
Dagg called his display a fluke, but the slippery runner's two-try effort against Tonga in the World Cup opener put all the pressure on Muliaina, who didn't have a chance to respond when he tweaked his hamstring last week.
Now, Muliaina, who came to Henry's attention when he was a high school principal and attracted him from Southland to Auckland, might not reach 100 tests. Muliaina should get a run in the last pool game against Canada next week but he doesn't fit into the reserves for the playoffs, and he's playing for NTT Docomo in Japan from next year.
"Our job is to make sure we do the best every week we can, and hopefully (Muliaina's century) fits into that big picture,'' Henry said. "No doubt we'd want that to happen if at all possible, but the team comes first and the first guy to say that's the right way would be Mils because he's that sort of person.''
Dagg might have blossomed into a top cricketer if rugby hadn't taken over, as he was a fast bowler who made junior representative teams for Hawkes Bay and Central Districts.
At 23, he's eight years younger than Muliaina, and heading for a distinguished career. He will play France for the first time.
"Obviously there are a lot people out there who want us to do well against the French,'' Dagg said. "There's a bit of a hatred, maybe, towards them. But hopefully we can go out there on Saturday and perform.''