Thank you, Graham Henry. The charismatic Kiwi funny-man [que?] made the Mole’s mind up for him, dropping 98-cap Kiwi legend Mils Muliaina from the starting line-up of the New Zealand team that faces Tonga in the opening match of RWC11.
The Mole had narrowed his choice of Kiwi ‘One To Watch’ subject down to two players: Isaia ‘Iceman’ Toeava and Israel ‘Rack Off Mr Fisher, You’ Dagg. By including Dagg ahead of Muliaina, Henry has thrown the young Hawkes Bay product into the spotlight. He’s probably most well-known for his at-the-death try that won the game for New Zealand against the Springboks in the 2010 Tri-Nations game in front of almost 95,000 people in Johannesburg [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYCuB1AE6HQ] but it’s this try that best showcases his running skills:
Dagg earned a reputation for himself as a schoolboy legend [the highest honour!], being picked for Hawkes Bay while still in secondary school, the first kid to be distinguished in such a manner since the advent of the professional era. It was obviously clear to New Zealand rugby folk from the outset that this lad was going to be a serious player and probable All Black. He made his way up through the Schools , U19s  and Sevens  teams before making his debut for the senior team six days after his twenty-first birthday.
The Mole well remembers Dagg’s international debut, coming as it did on one of those June tests that Ireland go through every other year when they take on the Kiwis on their home turf. While the 2006 and 2008 versions had been hard-fought games, the 2010 edition in which Dagg debuted was made a one-sided farce by Jamie Heaslip’s early red card. Even bleary-eyed from the early hour of the Saturday morning broadcast, it was clear that Dagg had sensational ability with ball in hand. While he somehow managed not to get on the scoresheet in that game [the New Zealanders scored nine tries in a 66-28 thumping], he looked a classy, languid runner with gas to burn.
Since then, Dagg has struggled with injury, notably a quad strain/tear that kept him out of a sizeable portion of this year’s Super XV season. That he made it into the NZ World Cup squad is testament to the faith the Henry, Smith and Hansen have in him, because Iceman Toeava had an absolute cracker of a season for Auckland at fullback and Cory Jane is well capable of filling the No15 jersey.
As mentioned in the Mole’s guide to the NZ World Cup Squad [http://dementedmole.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/ruhspuct-thuh-huhkuh-smuddy-nz-world-cup-squad-review/], Muliaina has seen off pretenders to his No15 jersey before, however. In picking a centre combination of Ma’a Nonu and Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums to face Tonga, Graham Henry could be protecting guys he sees as vital parts of his backline in Mils and Snake Smith.
The Tongans will be an incredibly hard-hitting opposition: it’s the first game of the tournament, against the hosts, and there’ll be a sizeable cross-pollination of Tongans and Kiwis both on the pitch and in the stands. These guys are going to be breathing fire. Henry has selected Kahui [nominally a centre] and Toeava [as aforementioned, nominally a fullback] on the wings, two fierce tacklers and physical runners compared to a more lightweight option like Zak Guildford.
While there’s little doubt that the three-headed hydra of the coaching team see Dagg as Muliaina’s successor, what is still open to question is whether they’re being entirely honest about it being an open competition for the No15 jersey at the moment. Dagg hasn’t played much rugby this year, and Mils is hardly ancient at 31.
Still, he gets the chance against Tonga to show what he can do at fullback. Personally, I’m not sure what the Kiwi coaching team’s take on the wing position is, and it could be that they see the back three being interchangeable across the board … if that’s so, we could see Dagg in either the No11 or No14 jerseys, alongside the man he looks destined to replace.
*It’s dawned on me that with McCaw and Muliaina tied on 98 caps, Graham Henry might be looking to give Sur Rutchie the honour of being the first All Black centurion. Nobody deserves it more, but Mils has given phenomenal service to the Silver Fern, including changing position to fill Umaga’s No13 jersey in RWC07.