All Blacks Rugby: Why Ben Smith Should Start at Fullback over Israel Dagg

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIJune 13, 2013

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 08: Ben Smith of the All Blacks breaks the tackle of Thierry Dusautoir of France during the first test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Eden Park on June 8, 2013 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Phil Walter/Getty Images

It has been perhaps the most debated position of the 2013 All Blacks thus far. Who should start at fullback? The brilliant but hopelessly out-of-form Israel Dagg? Or the electric and best fullback in the 2013 Super 15, Ben Smith?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic. Few would deny that Dagg has been well below his best for the Crusaders in the 2013 Super 15. But of course this is nothing new, as Dagg has struggled to put together a good Super 15 campaign since leaving the Highlanders in 2010. 

His form for the All Blacks, though, has remained outstanding during that period. He was the best fullback at Rugby World Cup 2011 and was electrifying during the 2012 Rugby Championship. With an uncanny knack of cutting defences to bits on the counter, coming into the line to great effect of attack, a very good clearance kick and an ability to take most high balls, there was little to critique in his game.

It is not overly unusual to see the All Blacks coaches show this type of loyalty to an out-of-form player capable of these feats. Indeed, Ma'a Nonu has kept his spot in the midfield despite some indifferent form over the past two years at Super 15 level, while Piri Weepu, Aaron Smith, Tony Woodcock and Ali Williams could have all considered themselves lucky at times over the past two years.

Some of these loyalties have paid off. Nonu certainly has looked fine once in the All Blacks setup, while Aaron Smith's performance in the first test against France this year showed a similar change in form. 

But some have not, such as the average international seasons from Weepu and Williams in 2012.

In many of these situations, though, there was little competition for the spot. Either inexperience or other out-of-form players have seen the selectors hands somewhat forced into picking the tried and true.

This is not the case with the Israel Dagg situation, however. In Ben Smith he has a competitor who has been in the black jersey before and is playing sublime rugby.

Smith has the ability to spot holes in the opposition defensive line and slice through it in a way other players seem unable to do. He is fast and well-balanced, while also being one of the best defensive fullbacks around, saving multiple tries for the Highlanders this season.

In the first test against France he showed that he was capable of doing this at test0match level too, making the break which led to the first try and looking threatening all night. However, he was forced to do this from the wing, as Dagg retained the No. 15 jersey.

The problem is, Dagg just is not capable of doing this right now, while Ben Smith is.

Smith plays the bulk of his rugby at fullback and thus tends to play his best rugby there. To further the argument, Smith looked by far and away the most dangerous of the All Blacks' backs. Therefore, he should be put in a position where he is going to see the ball regularly, which will happen if he is at fullback rather than on the wing.

Now if there was not someone else to fill in on the wing while Cory Jane is injured, maybe it would be better to play Dagg and Smith alongside each other. But with Rene Ranger in such devastating form, this argument becomes invalid.

In his cameo in the weekend, Ranger made two good runs, breaking a number of tackles and making an immediate impact. Along with this we all know how good he is defensively, perhaps the best back in the world at snaffling breakdown turnovers.

Dagg's All Blacks career should by no means be over. He is still a brilliant player, capable of cutting a team to bits. But as they say, form is temporary, class is permanent. Right now he is lacking in confidence and is too indecisive to be effective, while also missing too many tackles. But his time will come again, in some form.

The All Blacks' back three just looked better with Smith at fullback and Ranger on the wing, along with Julian Savea on the other wing. In this they had three attacking threats, while with Dagg they only really had two. 

To state the obvious, why would you not want to do something to make your team better? Even knowing how good Dagg can be, who is to say Smith will not be better? A reluctance to move forward has hurt many good teams in the past; the 2013 All Blacks will have to be careful not to fall into this trap.

If you are still not convinced, I pose you one final question.

What more must Ben Smith do to start at fullback ahead of Israel Dagg for the All Blacks?