Dan Carter bowed out of Test rugby with the World Cup triumph he so desperately craved to bookend one of the great careers, writes MARC HINTON.
Yes, there is a rugby god. We know this because he allowed Dan Carter, that prince of flyhalves, that doyen of his craft, the chance to sign off from the international game with one last, brilliant, illuminating flourish of his outrageous talents. That it helped carve the All Blacks their special place in history just made the maestro’s final symphony that much more of a masterpiece.
Carter, of course, was one of six All Blacks bowing out of the international game at the World Cup in England, five of them taking part in that marvellous final won 34-17 by Steve Hansen’s men over the Wallabies. That made them not just the first New Zealand side to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on foreign soil, but the first team to go back to back, and first to claim a third global crown.
Carter’s skipper, Richie McCaw, was also winding up arguably the greatest rugby career of all time (148 Tests, just 15 defeats, two World Cups, three World Rugby Player of the Year awards and nary a dud note in 15 years of international footy), and those magnificent midfielders Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith and formidable front rowers Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock (injured early at the World Cup) brought the curtain down on their own splendid innings.
But for Carter, especially, this was the finish he desperately craved. And deserved. He and World Cups hadn’t been happy bedfellows hitherto. In 2003, as a youngster, he was part of an All Blacks outfit stunned by the Wallabies in their Sydney semi-final, stunned into submission by Stirling Mortlock’s piece of opportunistic thievery. Then in 2007 he hobbled off injured in the quarter-final against France and could only watch from the sidelines as the New Zealanders imploded to their worst ever exit. And even in 2011, on home territory as the hosts ended a 24-year wait to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Carter was reduced to spectator status after being invalided out before the final pool match with a groin tear.
So for Carter this World Cup became the driver for the final four years of his time as an All Black. Other games, other teams came and went, and other achievements were racked up. But as he rounded out what’s been widely acknowledged as the finest No 10 career the New Zealand game has ever seen (maybe even the world one) there was only one pot of gold at the end of one rainbow.
There were doubts too. How could there not be? Carter’s body had begun to betray him over the latter stages of his career and the injuries had started to come at a steady trickle. He missed more and more Tests. His understudies received more and more chances in the lead role. And for the first time since he debuted as a fresh-faced inside centre in 2003, there were questions being expressed about whether he still had what it took to get the job done in the Test arena.
Those doubts were not just external either. In his autobiography, My Story, released in mid-November, Carter writes about the challenges he faced a year out from the World Cup.
‘Lingering injuries and elusive form combined to make me doubt my ability to ever reach this point,’ he wrote ahead of the final. ‘There were so many times when I wondered if I’d made a mistake by re-signing, that my body wouldn’t allow me to fulfil this dream.’
But one man never doubted him. And he was the important one. Hansen always knew that if Carter could find the fitness, then his experience, his brilliant left boot, his tactical acumen and his package of skills would take care of the rest. He never seriously considered a changing of the guard at No 10.
And how right he was.
Carter took a game or two through pool play to build rhythm and confidence, but by the time the All Blacks hit the quarter-finals in England, he was humming. The Racing-bound 33-year-old was exquisite as they exploded to thrash the French by a record 62-13, he was masterful in a grind-out, down-to-the-wire 20-18 semi-final success against the Boks and then he reached his epiphany in the final, that exhilarating, surging victory over the Wallabies that much had Carter as its principal influence.
He ran the show splendidly, dropped a goal from 40m that was like a dagger to Australian hearts and put the icing on the cake with a 50m, lights- out penalty. His last act was to slot a conversion (his sixth success from seven attempts with the boot) with his weaker right foot as a sort of final flourish of the brush.
‘I’ve had huge expectations of myself and that can be pretty draining. To be able to achieve those standards is what you live for. Those moments when you can say, “I reached my goal”. And that’s the end of the chapter,’ he told reporters after the final, the relief written in his voice.
He also spoke about how much more it meant to be a true part of such a triumphant success.
‘It was a pretty dark place four years ago. I would have loved to have been a part of a World Cup final at home,’ Carter reflected. ‘I’ve had to work extremely hard to be here. I’m just so proud of the guys and what they’ve achieved. This is the ultimate.
It’s been an amazing career and to finish it on this note … I still can’t quite believe it.’
After 112 Tests, 99 victories, 1 598 points, 29 tries, a near mortgage on the southern hemisphere’s symbols of supremacy, and two World Cups, Carter bowed out of Test rugby as the linchpin of what may be the greatest team of all time. Over the nearly five years since the start of the 2011 tournament, they have lost just three times.
‘I never thought my career would be defined by this tournament,’ he reflected. ‘But this was the dream finish, a fairytale way to end.’
So when World Rugby, at its final social engagement of the World Cup, awarded Carter its Player of the Year award (for the third time), not only was that recognition of a magnificent tournament campaign by that prince of No 10s, but it was also their way of saying, ‘thanks for the memories, Dan’.
As he, wife Honor, and sons Marco and Fox, head for Paris for the next chapter in this Carter story, they do so safely secure that the legacy of DC is writ large. There may never be another as good.
CARTER'S BIG INJURY SCARE
Just days out from the All Blacks’ World Cup semi-final against the Springboks, Dan Carter felt as though his world was about to come crashing down, and history was about to repeat itself in the worst possible way.
Carter revealed in his autobiography, My Story, that he had picked up a knee injury just before half-time in the quarter-final victory over the French, and as preparations were launched for the semi, he faced the very real prospect of injury striking him down for a third World Cup in succession.
He could barely walk the day after the French game, and on Monday it was even worse.
‘By Tuesday I thought I wasn’t going to play the semi,’ he wrote.
After being diagnosed with a ‘tweaked’ medial collateral ligament, he was given a cortisone injection and sat out the first two training runs of the week.
‘I was fighting to avoid thinking the worst – that all my training and rehab was for nothing, that I’d miss out on the big games again.’
But a local anesthetic enabled him to stride out on the all-important Thursday run, and by game day he was ready mentally and physically to take on the Boks. It’s history now that Carter didn’t just conquer his fears, but the South Africans too en route to the World Cup triumph he so desperately craved.
– This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine.