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