At 12 years of age, Israel Dagg was drinking on the streets of Hastings, headed to the gutter.
A decade later, the streets of Hastings and the rest of New Zealand drank to Dagg, their World Cup hero.
This remarkable, against-the-odds story is owed to a life-changing decision by Dagg to attend a well-heeled boarding school. He put down the bottle to pick up a pen, and has written himself a classic tale of bad boy done good, culminating in the greatest moment in New Zealand’s rugby history – finally winning the William Webb Ellis trophy in the professional era last October.
And had it not been for a scholarship to Lindisfarne College, his nation’s torment may well have continued.
“It changed the direction of my life,” Dagg told said.
“Because the way things were going, I would have ended up in jail or homeless. Doing nothing.
“I had a point in my life where I could have gone on the wrong path. I was headed in the wrong direction, doing bad stuff, drinking at 12.
“The stuff I was involved with, they just weren’t the right things.
“But I got some good people around me, my mum and dad, the people at Lindisfarne College. I was a real bad boy, but I had that talent. They noticed and gave me a scholarship.
“I went to boarding school, to start with I hated it but towards the end I loved it. From the point of view of the biggest change in my life, that was it. I had a lot of friends, they are not bad people and they are doing well in their lives now, but they had the talent to go far.”
Australian supporters will hate to remember Dagg’s sublime performance in the semi-final showdown against the Wallabies at Eden Park, including his magical pass to Ma’a Nonu for the only try of the match six minutes in. Dagg’s falling sideline flick will go down as one of the great World Cup passes, right alongside David Campese’s over-the-shoulder pop to Tim Horan in 1991, and Carlos Spencer’s beauty on the chest of Stirling Mortlock in 2003.
But most experts will tell you he should never have been there, not after tearing his quadriceps off his hip bone while playing for the Crusaders last year four months before the World Cup.
“I had some doubt within myself … it was a long-shot I’d make it back in time for the World Cup,” Dagg said. “The All Blacks coaches gave me an opportunity and I was really grateful.”
Dagg has hit ominous form in the past fortnight and arrives in Sydney on Friday with his Crusaders teammates for one of the biggest games of the Super Rugby season – against New South Wales Waratahs at Allianz Stadium on Sunday.
“I am still hungry,” Dagg said, “I want to keep doing great things with the Crusaders and All Blacks, keep achieving.”
Buford Balony says: Dagg by name, dag by nature.