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Just how good is Israel Dagg?

Israel Dagg celebrates (AFP Photo / Franck Fife)
Roar Guru
23rd August, 2012
41
8571 Reads

A blistering try down the left flank. A sublime transfer for a try down the right flank. A pin point kick, chase and tackle to force the Wallabies to pack down a scrum under pressure on their own line with time virtually up on the clock.

These were the moments which underlined a Man-of-the-Match performance from Israel Dagg. After just 16 tests for the All Blacks, Dagg has cemented his place as the premier fullback in New Zealand and perhaps the world.

He has also inherited the throne of a royal line of world class New Zealand fullbacks which stretches back, almost unbroken, to the very first New Zealand test match against Australia in Sydney in 1903.

At fullback for New Zealand that day was the early colossus of All Black rugby, Billy Wallace. Although never more than a reluctant fullback (he preferred to play on the wing), Wallace is always considered the first in the royal line.

A prolific points scorer of the time, Wallace amassed 230 points (including 27 tries) during the Originals tour of Britain, France and North America in 1905/06. That’s a record which still stands 106 years later.

Nicknamed “Carbine” after the 1890 Melbourne Cup winner, due to his blistering speed, Wallace was a key participant in one of the great controversies of All Black History. It was Billy Wallace that made the break and final pass to Bob Deans for the try that wasn’t against Wales at Cardiff Arms in 1905. But for a piece of Welsh skullduggery, that try and handy conversion close to the posts “an easy kick for me” as Wallace recalled, would have resulted in an undefeated tour.

Alas it was not to be. The controversial loss did however start a great rivalry between Wales and New Zealand, and when hostilities resumed during the All Blacks next major tour to the British Isles in 1924/5, at fullback that day was the legendary Hawkes Bay fullback George Nepia.

Aged just 19 years, Nepia was selected as the only fullback for the tour and thus played in that position in all 30 matches.

To add to this remarkable feat of endurance, none of his team mates can recall a single error in his play. Just think on that a moment.

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Not one missed tackle? Not one dropped high ball? Not one missed line kick for touch?

His team mates also agree that Nepia’s finest display was in the Test match against Wales at Swansea. It was in this match where Nepia displayed his devastating crash tackling and his fearlessness in the face of the Welsh forward dribbling rushes.

Nepia “guarded the gate” and the All Blacks kept the Welsh scoreless by 19 points to nil. One point for every year they waited to avenge poor old Bob Deans.

British Cricket and Rugby journalist, Denzil Batchelor wrote of Nepia “When I hear others debating who will play fullback for the Kingdom of Heaven versus the rest I turn to stone. It is not to me a question of whether Nepia was the best fullback in history. It is a question of which of the others is fit to lace up his Cotton Oxford boots.”

Nepia was not allowed to tour South Africa in 1928 when he was still in his prime aged just 23 years. He was never selected again for New Zealand after the 1930 season and went to league in 1932.

Nepia’s old Hawkes Bay coach, Norman Mckenzie caused a furore in 1954 when he said “Nepia was a truly great player. He stoppede the other team from scoring. Scott has brought a new dimension to rugby by not only defending his goal, but by also attacking the other side’s. I used to say Nepia was not a Scott and Scott was not a Nepia, but now I am quite satisfied Scott is the greatest fullback I have seen.”

He was referring of course to Bob Scott who was allowed to tour South Africa in 1949 and, kicking woes aside, played some of the best rugby of his illustrious career.

The legendary Springbok No.8, Hennie Muller stated that “Scott always appeared to have plenty of time, even under pressure.

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He loved coming into the line and his speed and elusiveness was such that he was always a danger. Altogether the greatest footballer I’ve ever played against in any position.”

During the 1953/54 tour of the British Isles, a 33-year-old Bob Scott would often give barefoot goalkicking displays from halfway during training. Great kicking displays would become the hallmark of his successor in the royal line, Don “The Boot” Clarke.

Don Clarke made his All Black debut during the 3rd test of the brutal 1956 Springbok tour of New Zealand.

The mighty Springboks had never lost a Test series anywhere to anyone in the 20th century up to that point.

With the series tied at 1-1, changes were made and into the fullback spot came the big Waikato fullback Don Clarke, who had been instrumental in Waikato’s defeat of the Springboks in the first match of the tour.

Two booming penalty goals and a conversion netted Clarke the first eight points of his test career.

He would retire in 1964 with a knee injury, having amassed a world record 207 points. To put this statistic in perspective when he retired, the player in second place, Jean Prat of France had 90 – less than half.

Many of Don Clarke’s goals were in match winning, pressure situations. He was directly responsible for All Black success in 16 of the 31 tests in which he played. A true match winner.

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One of the best descriptions of his effect on world rugby came from his All Black captain Sir Wilson Whineray. He described having Clarke behind the team as being “like a huge energy force behind you.” Clarke regularly kicked goals from his own 10-yard line and “we’d find that opposition hookers were afraid to move, and that loose forwards would stay attached to scrums. He inhibited the whole opposition.”

The nuggety Canterbury farmer, Fergie McCormick took over the fullback position 1965 and, apart from a brief interruption in 1966 held the jersey in good stead until the first Test against the Lions in 1971.

McCormick was also a fine goal kicker who set a then individual world record of 24 points against the grand slam winning 1969 Welsh team.

He also surpassed Don Clarke’s first class record of 1851 points and became the first New Zealander to pass 2000 points.

After McCormick, New Zealand was served well by many fine fullbacks. Joe Karam, Alan Hewson and Robbie Deans – Earls and Dukes rather than Kings.

The throne was regained when a slightly built former English policeman moved to Wellington and built a career that included a Rugby World Cup victory and retired having never suffered defeat in an All Black jersey.

John Gallagher will probably be remembered in New Zeland at least as the first truly attacking fullback with the stats to back it up. 35 tries in 41 matches for New Zealand.

His loss to rugby league in 1990 was deeply felt, especially considering his heir apparent, Matthew Ridge also defected in the same week.

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Then All Black coach, Alex Wyllie believed his team never fully recovered from the loss of Gallagher as it built towards the 1991 World Cup.

Not much more needs to be said about the two great fullbacks who followed Gallagher as long term custodians of the black No.15 jersey.

Christian Cullen – 52 tries in 58 matches. Malili Muliaina – first All Black back to reach 100 tests.

Israel Dagg. You think tackling a rampaging Bismark Du Plessis or Digby Ioane is difficult? Try living up to that legacy.

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