By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – Relentless competition for places has been the driving force for New Zealand players during an unprecedented run of success, former fullback Israel Dagg said, as the All Blacks head into their third consecutive Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
New Zealand, winners of the last two World Cups, face England in the semi-final of this year’s tournament on Saturday, having looked at their dominating and ruthless best in the hunt for a third successive title.
Dagg, who was part of New Zealand’s World Cup winning squad in 2011, has been impressed with the All Blacks so far and believes it is the fierce competition for places that continues to drive the side on.
Stalwarts such as Sonny Bill Williams and Reiko Ioane have found themselves warming the bench for the All Blacks so far in Japan, replaced in the starting line-up by the likes of Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece.
“You have got guys in the squad that could play in any other team but they are not even starting in the All Blacks,” Dagg told Reuters on Tuesday.
“Nobody is given the jersey, you have got to earn it, you have got to work hard for it and if you are not performing then someone else will take that opportunity.”
This competition is what makes the All Blacks the team to beat at every World Cup, Dagg said.
“A year ago a lot of those guys that are starting at the moment, they weren’t even in the picture,” he said.
“It isn’t given and you have to work hard for it. You have to earn it.”
Two players who have certainly earned the right to wear the famous black jersey are Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.
The pair have impressed so far at the World Cup, operating as dual playmakers and wreaking havoc in defensive game plans with their ability to switch play instantly.
Dagg has been impressed with both players, but especially Barrett, who has excelled since moving to fullback.
It is a position Dagg knows well, having played the majority of his 66 tests with the number 15 on his jersey.
“Beauden has always been class, he is a quality player. Just how he has transitioned into that fullback role… every week getting better and better,” said Dagg, who rates Barret as currently the world’s best fullback.
“When an opposition makes the kick, he is always scooping them up and getting himself into good positions. His counterattack is second to none. He can kick off both feet. That is the quality he has.”
Barrett, the fourth-highest points scorer in All Blacks history, has played most of his career at flyhalf but moved to fullback to accommodate Mo’unga and implement coach Steve Hansen’s dual playmaker system.
“Because he has played 10, he understands how to control the game as well … it makes it harder for the defence,” said Dagg.
He is backing the All Blacks to reach their third consecutive World Cup final with a win over England but does expect Eddie Jones’ side to be well drilled and to provide New Zealand with their sternest test so far.
Putting the All Blacks under pressure, a feat very few teams have succeeded in, will be key if England are to pull off an upset win.
“If you give New Zealand time and space and you let them play their game, then they will do what they did to Ireland,” said Dagg.
New Zealand beat Ireland 46-14 in the quarter-finals last weekend to notch up an 18-game winning streak in World Cup matches.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Richard Pullin)