Dagg eyes perfect finish to deny O'Driscoll elusive scalp
Published 19/11/2013 | 01:00
THERE are three topical certainties this week: Ireland's losing record, spear tackles and Zinzan Brooke's affinity for Gaelic football.
That's from our point of view at least. For the All Blacks, it's about righting some perceived wrongs. Twelve months ago, a combination of fatigue and a virus that swept through the camp saw their unbeaten year go up in smoke in Twickenham.
Victory at that venue last week gives them a shot at a perfect record this time. They'll play it down over the next few days, but their team room in London last week was adorned with the assertion that they were "the most dominant team in the history of the world".
And on Sunday at the Aviva Stadium they'll look to confirm that with a flawless 2013. There can be little argument. That reverse to England last year is their only defeat in 34 games since they won the World Cup on home soil. History beckons.
Ireland's focus is very different. The ashes of the Australia game still glow as the spectre of the All Blacks come into sight. When all is considered, a first win over New Zealand is plausible only to the romantics.
On Sunday, Brian O'Driscoll, the golden man of the golden generation, will sign off on his storied career against New Zealand. If this clash goes the way of the previous 27 across 108 years, then his career won't be adorned with a win over the All Blacks.
He has won almost everything else and, it's the least he deserves.
Reality keeps tugging at our sleeves this week. It has been 18 months since the 60-0 mauling in the final Test of a three-game series, but it's the game a week earlier in Christchurch that sticks out for All Black full-back Israel Dagg. For the Crusaders man, the second Test, where Ireland came so close to an upset, stands out.
With just under 10 minutes to go and the game tied at 19-19, Dagg charged into Rob Kearney as he was clearing his lines. Nigel Owens binned the Kiwi and Johnny Sexton had a shot at goal. Dagg stood on the brink of infamy. Sexton missed, Owens penalised Ireland in the scrum – which they had the upper hand in for much of the day – and eventually Dan Carter's drop-goal broke Irish hearts.
"It was pretty tight and I was sitting there going, 'Aw, I hope I don't cause the first loss to the Irish'," Dagg recalls. "But luckily that magician Carter came on and got a drop-goal. That was my first yellow card and we nearly lost."
That was the first Test back in Christchurch since the earthquake that destroyed much of the city. The enormity of that occasion might well have played some part in the All Blacks' uncharacteristically sloppy performance but a week later, they crushed a spent Ireland.
New Zealand have had a similarly long year in 2013, but after falling at the final hurdle last year, Dagg insists they are mentally stronger this time around.
"There might be a few guys looking forward to the break but for us it's about the mental (side), trying to be mentally strong and getting past that final hurdle. It's all on ourselves if we don't perform. We are playing for our country, our families and each other," he says.
Dagg's influence in a team of stars isn't obvious – he hasn't scored a try this year – but there's a saying about statistics being like a bikini in that they show you enough to be interesting but what they hide is vital.
He's widely regarded as the best full-back in the world, and with Carter starting his six-month sabbatical from the game early due to injury, his influence will be easier to spot on Sunday.
Dagg made his debut in 2010 in the game that saw Jamie Heaslip pick up a red card. Dagg was criticised early in his career for his ability to deal with dropping balls, and he recognises Kearney as one of the masters of that craft.
"I remember that Test; it was awesome to put the jersey on. Things went well that day for me personally. I didn't get a try but I got my hands on the ball and had some fun. We were lucky that one of them got a red card and there were only 14 men left.
"It made our day a little bit easier, but Ireland are a quality side and they have quality backs. I have a lot of respect for Rob Kearney. I have played him a few times and he's a tough opponent. So is Tommy Bowe.
"There are a few guys out there that are pretty sharp so it will be tough game for us at the final hurdle."
Two highly motivated sides for two very different reasons. There's New Zealand on the brink of unparalleled greatness. O'Driscoll, with greatness assured, is out to add the fern to his feathered cap.
"He's a great player. He has been around so long and he's like Dan Carter," Dagg says of Ireland's No 13.
"I've got so much respect for him and he deserves everything he has got. Hopefully the boys can do the job next week and keep him on zero wins against the All Blacks. But we'll send him off well after the game."
There's another certainty this week: the All Blacks will leave any sentimentality until Sunday night.