Dan Carter ex­clu­sive

Iconic fly-half on All Blacks’ quest to make history

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Front Page - Oliver Brown

To Dan Carter’s el­der sis­ter, Sarah, he was al­ways the lit­tle tyke smash­ing their par­ents’ win­dows with kicks from the next-door gherkin field. A rugby tragic, but is there any other kind in New Zealand? Eight years later, ev­ery­thing had changed. She re­turned from a pro­longed spell abroad to dis­cover the latest im­ages of Dan, a ru­ral boy from South­bridge to his core, plas­tered across down­town Christchurch in his jockey shorts.

He smiles bash­fully at the mem­ory. “She had gone over to Aus­tralia and Canada by the time I fin­ished school,” he re­calls. “A cou­ple of years later, I was play­ing for the All Blacks. Two years af­ter that, I was on bill­boards.

“So, she re­turned to New Zealand not quite un­der­stand­ing the ex­tent to which things had changed for her baby brother. All of a sud­den, she was see­ing me in mag­a­zines or up on some poster in my un­der­wear. She was won­der­ing what had hap­pened while she had been away. It hit her pretty hard.”

In the eyes of the be­holder, Carter’s ca­reer has been a warp-speed ride. For a glimpse of what he has ac­com­plished in his 106 in­ter­na­tion­als lead­ing to this, his fi­nal World Cup, it pays to con­sider the clos­est con­tenders to his man­tle as the high­est points-scorer in Test history.

Of play­ers still ac­tive, Aus­tralia’s Matt Giteau is near­est, with 693. Morne Steyn of South Africa has 688. Both of them are in a far-dis­tant or­bit to Carter, whose bench­mark of 1,516 points is as gid­dy­ing as his team-mate Wy­att Crockett’s record of one Test de­feat in his 40 caps.

And yet he wears the weight of such feats re­mark­ably lightly. It is strik­ing how, on the eve of New Zealand’s World Cup cam­paign, Carter is happy to talk one-on-one for half an hour at a Waterloo ho­tel, while his coun­ter­parts in the Eng­land team have been in vir­tual media lock­down for weeks. “I’ve been do­ing this for so long now, I hardly even no­tice it,” he says.

His preter­nat­u­ral poise arises from the fact that he has cho­sen, aged 33, his mo­ment to walk away, and that this was not al­ways a tour­na­ment he ex­pected to grace. Carter was de­scribed barely six months ago by Kiwi pun­dits as a “worry”, a man in “anaemic form”, a “shadow of his for­mer self ”.

Aaron Cru­den, who looked for all the world like his heir pre­sump­tive at fly-half, had been ex­iled for six months with a ru­ined knee, and doubts grew as to whether Carter – once the surest boot on the planet – could fill the breach. That was be­fore a lu­mi­nous dis­play in last month’s Bledis­loe Cup de­cider in Auck­land ren­dered all his pro­fes­sional obituaries null and void.

“I had a lack of trust in my body,” he says. “There was a lot of com­pe­ti­tion for my po­si­tion, and I wasn’t get­ting a good crack at it, be­cause I al­ways seemed to be com­ing back from in­jury. I had a cou­ple of doubts these past three years about whether I would even be here, whether my body would hold up. But I have sim­pli­fied ev­ery­thing of late, and that has al­lowed to me play much more openly and freely. I have the trust and con­fi­dence in my body back. It’s in great nick.”

Did he feel that he had proved a point when Steve Hansen, the All Blacks’ head coach, her­alded his per­for­mance in that 41-13 thrash­ing of Aus­tralia as the “Dan Carter of old”?

“Aw, a lit­tle bit,” he says, shyly. “I’ve been very for­tu­nate in that we won the Bledis­loe Cup off Aus­tralia in 2003 and re­tained it through­out my ca­reer. The last thing I wanted to do was to give it up in my last year of be­ing an All Black. Yeah, there were a few scenes of sat­is­fac­tion af­ter that one.”

The pep talk he had re­ceived from Hansen, who told him with cus­tom­ary blunt­ness to find the qual­i­ties that had made him great, proved to be a wa­ter­shed. For a few per­ilous weeks his grip on a World Cup start­ing place had looked pre­car­i­ous, threat­ened even in Cru­den’s ab­sence by the bril­liance of young Lima Sopoaga, the latest in a con­veyor belt of cul­tured New Zealand No 10s. Now, for this emo­tional cur­tain-call along­side his close friend Richie McCaw, his sta­tus as his coun­try’s first five-eighth is ar­mour-plated once more.

For Carter, the im­pact of his re­vival is height­ened by flash­backs to what be­fell him in 2011, when it was New Zealand’s turn to be hosts. McCaw had pulled out of a pool game against Canada at late no­tice, af­ford­ing Carter a rare chance of the cap­taincy. His joy at that hon­our was cru­elly cur­tailed, though, when he pitched up for a gen­tle cap­tain’s run the day be­fore and promptly tore his groin. He was sup­posed to take only four kicks – a mere fri­vol­ity for one who had lined up tens of thou­sands since his days of shat­ter­ing those South­bridge win­dows – but the sear­ing pain that fol­lowed his fourth spelt doom.

Scans con­firmed that he had rup­tured his ad­duc­tor, that the World Cup he was meant to head­line would have to go on with­out him. This sick­en­ing re­al­ity might have bro­ken the will of a lesser man, but Carter’s first re­sponse was to sign on for four more years. “Yes, I would love to have been there for the play-off stages,” he says. “But straight away, the goal of mine was to be here in Lon­don in 2015. And here I am, hugely proud of the work I have put in. It has been an ex­tremely chal­leng­ing time.”

A clause in his most re­cent con­tract en­abled Carter to take a six-month sab­bat­i­cal from the game. The pris­tine golden boots that he wore for his 100th Test at Twick­en­ham in 2013, a game watched by his fa­ther Neville, could not dis­guise the mount­ing toll on his phys­i­cal well-be­ing as he hob­bled off af­ter 25 min­utes with Achilles prob­lems. It was a pro­pi­tious mo­ment, with the All Blacks safely en route to an un­de­feated sea­son, to make a clean break by indulging a plethora of out­side in­ter­ests. He sur­prised jour­nal­ists at the 2014 Mas­ters by turn­ing up unan­nounced at Au­gusta, as a guest of Kiwi media mogul Craig Heat­ley, and also blended into the crowds at the Coachella mu­sic fes­ti­val in Cal­i­for­nia.

“It feels as if I am still reap­ing the re­wards,” Carter says. “I spent a lot of time trav­el­ling and go­ing to sport­ing events, and then I used the four­month pre-sea­son to strip my train­ing right back af­ter all the in­juries. When I came back, I felt great. Un­for­tu­nately, I then broke my leg in con­tact, and peo­ple start­ing ques­tion­ing whether the sab­bat­i­cal had been such a good idea for me. But it has paid off, when you see how I am at the big­gest tour­na­ment still feel­ing fresh. To play for 13 years is not easy – it will take a toll. The op­por­tu­nity to step back has been a great ad­van­tage for me.”

Carter does not dis­pute that this World Cup is in­vested with much emo­tional res­o­nance for him. Af­ter all, he is poised to re­tire along­side the vet­er­ans he calls his broth­ers: McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu, Con­rad Smith. But if you sus­pect he might be de­mob happy, think again, for his win­ning in­stincts are as all-con­sum­ing as ever. He tells a joke that as he pre­pares for his fourth World Cup with the most dom­i­nant team sport has ever known, he has yet to win one.

“I love do­ing things that no one has done be­fore,” he ex­plains. “No All Blacks team has won the World Cup out­side New Zealand, so that’s a tar­get I’m very ex­cited about. Back-to-back World Cups would be a first, too. But these are huge asks, and that’s why it has never been done be­fore. We have a lot to do be­fore we can even con­sider the pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

This sounds sus­pi­ciously like false mod­esty from a team who face Ar­gentina to­day with the first start­ing XV ever to hold over 1,000 Test caps. But Carter is hon­our­ing the spirit of un­der­state­ment that Hansen has en­cour­aged, mind­ful of how of­ten New Zealand’s World Cup bub­ble has been burst.

With the coach’s ap­proval, they have moved their base out to Teddington, to es­cape the cen­tral-Lon­don gold­fish bowl, and con­structed high se­cu­rity fences around all train­ing ses­sions to de­ter pry­ing eyes. They ex­ude a sin­gle-minded in­tent.

Carter, who has es­tab­lished per­fec­tion as stan­dard, likes it this way. He gives a strong sug­ges­tion that this All Blacks gen­er­a­tion, of which he has been a cen­tral pil­lar, is the finest in the team’s 110-year history.

“Win­ning the World Cup, that is what ev­ery in­ter­na­tional rugby side strives for. But it is a fea­ture of ev­ery win­ning side so far that there has been a lull, which means we set our­selves the task of be­com­ing even bet­ter. We man­aged that. We lost only one game in 2012 and went with­out a de­feat in 2013. We have cre­ated some­thing pretty spe­cial.”

Why leave, then? Why, when he is so re­ju­ve­nated, does Carter not stay on this wave a while longer? The an­swer, ul­ti­mately, is fi­nan­cial.

Carter, by re­main­ing in his na­tive land to safe­guard his All Blacks el­i­gi­bil­ity, has se­verely re­stricted his earn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for years. So, when the of­fer came from Rac­ing Métro to sign the sport’s first £1 mil­lion-a-year salary, he grasped it.

He had ex­pe­ri­ence of the French rugby cul­ture be­fore, cour­tesy of a sea­son at Per­pig­nan in 2008, and the prospect of stag­ing the sunset of his play­ing days in Paris ap­peared no hard­ship.

“The All Blacks jersey is some­thing that means so much to me, and that’s why I have played in New Zealand for so long. In a way, I just never want it to end. But the de­ci­sion is to move on at the end of the year. It’s a fab­u­lous chance for my fam­ily to head out and im­merse them­selves in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture.”

First, he plans an all-im­por­tant home­com­ing to South­bridge, where his lo­cal club, the Midgets, will be­lat­edly present him with a blazer to mark his cen­te­nary of All Blacks caps. “It holds a huge place in my heart,” Carter says. “It’s where I grew up, where some of my best friends still are. Peo­ple there know me from way be­fore I be­came an All Black, and they will rip into me about the cou­ple of kicks I have missed dur­ing a game. They keep me grounded.”

His sis­ter, shocked as she was to see the speed with which he be­came the pride of a na­tion, will be glad to hear it.

Dan Carter is a MasterCard Rugby World Cup 2015 brand am­bas­sador. MasterCard are de­liv­er­ing Price­less Sur­prises to fans around the world.

‘I had a cou­ple of doubts about whether I would even be here, whether my body would hold up’ ‘The All Blacks jersey means so much to me and that’s why I have played in New Zealand for so long’

Tower of strength: Dan Carter says he is fully fit and fir­ing for his last World Cup

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