Carter and his superheroes ready for final rescue mission
The heart of the All Blacks will be ripped apart after one last shot at glory at Twickenham
Dan Carter’s cherished collection of superhero costumes started with his favourite, The Phantom, a creation of the 1930s, who was also known as ‘The Man Who Cannot Die’. The sporting kind of immortality is guaranteed New Zealand’s greatest fly-half when he leads a quintet of All Black greats into international retirement after this World Cup final.
Some good news for the rest of the planet. The heart will be ripped out of the All Blacks in the final 80 minutes of this tournament. In their moment of triumph – or defeat – New Zealand will kiss goodbye to five statesmen who have shaped the world game for more than a decade and can lay 609 Test caps on a table. Prepare for arguably the greatest single-day exodus of talent in the history of team sports.
Richie McCaw, Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Kevin Mealamu all emerged around the time England became world champions in 2003. Their bid to become union’s first back-to-back World Cup winners combines epic mission with pained goodbye.
Carter took the superhero costume question with good grace 24 hours before his 112th and last international outing. “It sounds a bit weird but Ali Williams [the former All Black] and I used to dress up, and started a collection, with pretty much every superhero costume there is,” Carter said. “Not too sure of the reasoning behind that, but, yeah, I’ve got a good collection at my mate’s house now.”
Carter’s next stop is Racing Metro in Paris, where he signed a three-year deal to become the game’s highest paid player and will be unveiled next month. But first there is the spectacularly unfinished business of a Rugby World Cup final appearance to fill the hole left by his injury before the 2011 finale in New Zealand.
“Immediately after that  I was pretty devastated, but I knew I still had a lot to add to New Zealand rugby,” Carter said here at Twickenham. “That’s why I signed a [new] four-year deal. In the back of my mind after what happened in 2011 was to give myself another chance at a World Cup. It was pretty far-fetched thinking that far ahead. I just wanted to be part of this side for the World Cup. That’s what’s been driving me for the last two years. I feel pretty lucky to be part of such a special side.”
A debate about who is the greater player – McCaw or Carter – would burn a barrel of midnight oil but nobody could overlook the poignance of the two bowing out together (assuming McCaw goes, which he almost certainly will).
Carter says of the clash with Australia: “Both teams will be in it to die for the cause – that’s what makes it such a good contest. Two quality sides going at it.” And, of course, he has imagined himself kicking the decisive points, superhero-style: “I’ve won a few World Cups in my backyard when I was five or six years old.”
For the All Blacks, the task is to use the melodrama of massretirement day without being overwhelmed by it to Australia’s advantage. “There’s been no talk about that at all and I think that’s the last thing any of us want,” McCaw says, trying, and failing to persuade us that five legends departing the stage is a mere subplot. He did soften that line: “There’s no doubt the guys know there’s a few fellas that won’t be here next year, but the best way to get that right is go and perform.” If anyone can master their emotions, these five can.
No preview of the clash between the World Cup’s two best sides is complete without a recitation of some astonishing statistics. McCaw, 34, has won 130 of his 147 games in the All Black shirt and is a triple World Player of the Year and veteran of four World Cups. Brian O’Driscoll’s previous Test appearance record of 141 now trails in his wake. Carter, 33, has posted 98 victories in 111 All Black fixtures and is the all-time leading scorer in Test rugby with 1,579 points. He is a double World Player of the Year and is best known to British and Irish Lions fans for scoring 33 points against the tourists in a 48-18 New Zealand win in 2005.
Nonu (‘The Rock’) and Smith (a lawyer), both 33, have played together at centre a world-record 61 times and are practically umbilical. Together they post 195 caps and 56 tries. Finally Mealamu, 36, who starts on the bench, is second only to McCaw on the All Black appearances list with 131 caps. Like Carter and McCaw, Mealamu breaks new ground in contesting four World Cups.
If McCaw is the scavenger supreme and indefatigable fighter of the side, Carter is the one whose panache has raised the All Black play to an art form. The others have fed off his talent for orchestration. “He’s enhanced the jersey. When you start out as an All Black that’s one of the greatest things you can do,” says Steve Hansen, the All Blacks’ coach. “If you can sit back and say, ‘I’ve improved this jersey from how I picked it up’. In his position it’s a pretty remarkable thing to do, if you think about [Grant] Fox and [Earle] Kirton and [Andrew] Mehrtens.
“When they stopped we all said we wouldn’t be able to replace them but a little fellah from Southbridge has done that. He’s done it in a nice way. He’s a pretty humble bloke. He’s added a new dimension to the first-fives. He’s brought tackling. I don’t think Foxy made one in his whole career. I don’t think Merhrts made too many, either. But the modern day first five-eight has to tackle now and that will be a legacy that’s left for all first-fives. That’s not something they’re keen on but they now have to do it and he’s done it with a lot of courage. The other good thing about him is that he’s a normal good bloke. Likes a beer, likes a laugh, so he’s nice company.”
Hansen is equally complimentary of course, about McCaw: “I think he’s probably the greatest player we’ve ever had play the game, certainly for New Zealand. As a leader, he copped a bit of flak in ’07. In my mind, leaders aren’t made, they are grown. You’re not born a leader, you learn through your experiences, and a lot of those experiences can be negative ones that you have to learn pretty sharply from.”
And Nonu: “Back in ’07, and probably prior to that, he was a rugby player who was up and down with his form, up and down with his fitness, had a narrow skillbase, or narrower than it is today. But he’s one of the fittest guys on the team, he’s got a skill-base to die for, he’s not just a big ball-carrier. He can offload, he can kick, and he’s matured into a very good leader. While he doesn’t say a lot, when he does speak, it’s reasonably worthwhile listening to it. Along with Conrad and Sonny Bill, it gives us a massive advantage in midfield. It can’t be easy for teams to think, ‘we’ve just got rid of Ma’a Nonu’ and then have to deal with Sonny Bill.”
Carter may have been forced by his wife to remove the superhero costumes from their home but the New Zealand shirt will never really be off his skin. He describes the addiction: “Just the love for the All
‘That’s what’s been driving me for the last two years. I feel lucky to be part of such a special side’
Black jersey. It’s just something I always wanted to do, and got a taste for it, in 2003 for the first time, and never wanted it to end. I had a good run for the first eight years of my career but then found it pretty tough with form and injuries.
“But just that love for the jersey and wanting to play at the highest level and represent your country and play alongside your best mates, It’s something that gets you through those tough times.”
All five of the departing legends were handed their debuts by John Mitchell between 2001 and 2003. They began illustrious careers in Dublin, Cardiff, Hamilton and Wellington; and, 609 caps later, they leave the crowd wanting more, in a World Cup final, at the game’s most famous ground. But there is no more. Just this last hurrah.
‘He’s probably the greatest player we’ve ever had play the game, certainly for New Zealand’