Dan Carter faces serious questions about his ability to make it through to the next World Cup, writes MARC HINTON.
The mind is patently willing, but for Dan Carter the body appears to be the most reluctant of participants. The master All Blacks flyhalf desperately wants to round out a staggering international career with a fourth World Cup appearance, but it looks like he’s going to have to negotiate some murky waters to get there.
If Carter’s fit, he’ll be an automatic choice in Steven Hansen’s squad that heads to England next year looking to become not only the first side to defend the global crown, but the first All Blacks outfit to win the World Cup on foreign soil. But it’s a big ‘if’.
No one doubts the now 32-year-old Test centurion’s abilities. Even in these twilight years of his career he remains a supreme playmaker capable of making the difficult look remarkably easy. But what he can’t seem to do of late is keep himself on the footy field, and this is giving rise to a national preoccupation in New Zealand – the debate on whether the great Dan Carter can even make it through to the World Cup.
He believes so. He has to. Ever since he tore his groin practising goal kicks on the eve of the final pool match against Canada back at the 2011 tournament, Carter has been driven to return for one final shot at the ultimate glory.
He collected his winner’s medal, all right, at Eden Park that October night three years ago and very much shared in his teammates’ glory. But limping to a variety of seats in the stands, glad-handing with the sponsors and offering tactical advice to the succession of replacement No 10s who followed in his footsteps was not how he’d envisaged this fairytale ending. It was indeed a bittersweet experience.
Remember, in 2007 he’d hobbled off injured in the shock quarter-final defeat to the French in Cardiff and in 2003 he was an unused sub as the All Blacks crashed out in the semi-finals against the Wallabies.
‘I haven’t had much luck at the three World Cups I’ve been part of, so it’s a motivating thing and a goal I’ve been pretty open about,’ he reflects. ‘I’d love to be part of the All Blacks team in 2015.’
So, more chapters have had to be written. Four more years of them. And so far the constant theme has been of injury. In 2012 he strained his hamstring, calf and Achilles and played just nine of the All Blacks’ 14 Test matches; last year there was a cracked bone in his hand, another calf strain, an AC joint (shoulder) injury and then the Achilles problem that saw him restricted to just six Tests out of a potential 14.
When you factor in that he played just six Tests in 2011 and so far in 2014 he’s yet to feature in an international – he was due back somewhere around the All Blacks’ clash against Argentina in La Plata on 27 September – that’s something in the region of 23 caps he’s missed over the past three years or so.
It’s no wonder he feels just a little unfulfilled.
‘I haven’t had much luck at the three World Cups I’ve been part of … I’d love to be part of the All Blacks team in 2015’
Not even a six-month sabbatical at the start of this year, designed primarily to rejuvenate the flagging Carter body, has been enough to halt the shocking injury run. Though his latest blow – a cracked bone in his leg suffered in the Super Rugby final in Sydney – was more sheer bad luck than any sign of an ailing body.
‘The timing of it is one of the most frustrating things,’ Carter reflected shortly before the Rugby Championship. ‘I’ve had an extended break and been working extremely hard to get back and playing to the level I’m happy with. I felt like I was just starting to get there and to have a setback like this, that’s the toughest thing.’
There was no need, though, to rethink his master plan.
‘The World Cup is over a year away,’ he shrugs. ‘The bone will heal and I’ll be back. There’s a lot of rugby to be played and I’m confident I can get up to the high standards I push myself towards. It’s an injury that can happen any time on the rugby field. It’s a minor setback; and it’s not changing my goals.’
Nor should it, says Hansen, who’s been consistent on one thing over the past 12 months – Carter and Richie McCaw will both be at the forefront of his World Cup thinking, as long as they are motivated and, er, fit.
‘It’s unfortunate Dan got injured but there’s not too much you can do when somebody smacks you in the leg and breaks a bone. From a long-term perspective we know he’ll be fine and come back in, and we also know we’ve got able replacements in the meantime.’
The man from whom Carter has taken most of his All Blacks records certainly backs the playmaker to go the distance.
‘I think he can and I think he will,’ Andrew Mehrtens says of Carter’s prospects of a fourth World Cup. ‘What he brings now is more than he brought at the start with his speed, talent and boot. He is the central hub of the All Blacks’ attacking game with his organisation and communication.
‘What he brings to the guys around him is a sense of calm and confidence, accuracy of passing and decision-making, and then the reading of the game, to know when to make an impact himself. On and off the field he will be a big part of the All Blacks’ drive for back-to-back cups.’
Hansen doesn’t know for sure that he can cajole two more years out of Carter and McCaw – Father Time and young upstarts, in that order, are playing catchup on this dynamic duo – but the All Blacks coach is damned if he isn’t going to give it a lick.
He owes the two finest players of their generation, and maybe in all rugby, the chance to take a fourth tilt at the windmill, and possibly put the exclamation points on a couple of careers the likes of which we may never see again.
‘McCaw and Carter are two of the greatest players we’ve ever had. The big, burning question is: are they going to make the World Cup? The way we answer that is we just take it year by year, and in the meantime we continue to grow people in case they don’t,’ Hansen says.
‘We can afford to be patient. They’ll control their desire and we’ll be the judge of their performance. It’s pretty simple – Richie’s performances are outstanding and his desire is huge, so roll on next year. And with Dan we just need him to play, then we can start making some decisions about where he’s at. What we do know is he’s probably the greatest we’ve had.’
The greatest just needs that body to play ball one more time. That’s all he asks.
– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine