‘I’ll never be fully satisfied. You can always get better.’
THE world realised just how good he could be on July 2, 2005. That was the night Dan Carter elevated the artistry, accuracy and ferocity of supreme flyhalf play to a new dimension.
It was once said of Nick Faldo that he had conquered golf – he had beaten the game. Well, against the Lions in Wellington four years ago, Carter seemed to conquer rugby.
The majesty of his performance was astonishing. It defied belief at times. Two years after his international debut, he touched the stars.
An early try by Gareth Thomas had given Sir Clive Woodward’s team the lead, but then the All Blacks’ perfect 10 reduced them to rubble. Carter supplied the spark and the fireworks as the hosts ran riot.
He registered two tries, five penalties and four conversions for a 33-point personal haul which smashed the previous Test record of 18 by a New Zealander against the Lions.
Yet, even the remarkable numbers don’t do justice to his efforts. What caught the eye was the certainty and conviction about everything he did, the total belief in his skills – the passing, kicking, tackling, running. everything clicked, everything came off.
There was an added poignancy to Carter’s tour de force as it came in the only match where he has faced Jonny Wilkinson directly.
England’s World Cup-winning hero had played at inside centre the week before in Christchurch and injury kept him out of not only the last Test in Auckland, but also so many other clashes with the All Blacks. What happened in Wellington suggested a changing of the guard.
There was a sense that Wilkinson’s reign as the sport’s global icon was at an end and that the country boy from Canterbury had emerged as a darling for the next generation.
One image captured the theme perfectly, as Carter brushed aside his rival and was pictured racing clear, leaving Wilkinson flat on the turf, clutching at his vapour trail.
There have been so many memorable performances since, but even Carter concedes that the stunning display in the Westpac Stadium remains his personal benchmark.
The alarming news for England is that he is sure he can trump it.
“That would be right up there in terms of playing ability,” he said of his Lion-taming feat.
“You always want to look for the perfect game. I still think I can play better and I want to put in a good performance this weekend.
“I’ve been pretty happy with my rugby since coming back from my Achilles injury, but I don’t want to get complacent, I want to keep improving.
“I was happy with how I played in Wales but I can improve on that. I don’t think I ever will be fully satisfied. You can always get better.”
What is even more ominous for England is that the All Blacks’ master conductor, who they face at Twickenham today, is particularly revved up for action after serving a one match ban – his first ever – for a high tackle on Wales scrumhalf Martin Roberts.
“If anything it makes you more motivated to go out and play this weekend after a weekend off,” he added. “I am fresh and ready to go.”
Pressed for self-assessment, Carter argues he is a more complete player these days because of his experience and status as a senior squad member with added responsibility.
But, in truth, he didn’t look far short of being the finished article from the moment he made his inter national debut.
He was a 21-year-old with a handful of appearances for Canterbury when the All Blacks picked him at inside centre for their match against Wales in Hamilton on June 21, 2003.
In a ducks-to-water arrival he scored a try and kicked six conversions and a penalty to propel his side to a 55-3 victory. In a flash, New Zealand had a new poster-boy.
Like Wilkinson, one of Carter’s strengths is the remarkable consistency which has seen him surge to within range of 1,000 Test points at the age of 27. He has rarely had an off-day – it is more a case of judging his performances on a sliding scale between good and exceptional.
Fitness permitting, he will one day become the world’s all-time leading points scorer, and, such is the punishing nature of the modern game, he may set records that will never be broken.
As many of the great fly halves state on these pages, it is impossible to make watertight comparisons between players from different ages, but it is reason- able to draw certain conclusions nonetheless.
Playing solely in the professional era, he has been forced to operate against for midable defensive structures, yet he has made a mess of most of them.
In an era when goal-kicking No 10s are drilled until they land the vast majority of their kicks in all weather, under all sorts of pressure, he has ticked that box too.
Stand-offs are no longer allowed to shirk their tackling duties and he holds the line with assurance against allcomers.
So, while there is no way of gauging precisely his creative ability compared to that of, say, Barry John or Michael Lynagh, the demands of the modern game mean he is surely a better allrounder.
Wilkinson stands apart as the sole true challenger today, but the Englishman’s gifts are more channelled. He is a destructive defender and phenomenal kicker, but, as a visionary playmaker and running threat, Carter is comfortably ahead in delivering more or less the complete package. So is he the greatest of them all? There can be no scientific certainty, but, on the balance of evidence, the answer is yes. – The Daily Mail
GLOBAL ICON: Jonny Wilkinson.
CREATIVE GENIUS: Michael Lynagh.
SIZZLING SEVENTIES: Barry John.