Henry’s Carter conundrum

The All Blacks are desperate for a decent flyhalf but will starting an undercooked Dan Carter really solve their problems?

After a long-term Achilles injury that sidelined him for six months, Carter has played several games for his club and province. The All Blacks selectors feel this is sufficient preparation for the grueling environment of Tri-Nations rugby, and when the team is announced on Tuesday, Carter could well be listed at No 10.

It’s understandable why Graham Henry would want to rush him back. Stephen Donald has struggled to cope with the responsibility at this level. Test rugby is very different to Super 14 rugby, and in the tighter, more physical contests, Donald has gone AWOL.

Through Carter, the All Blacks have boasted a strong line kicking game in recent years. Through Donald, this aspect has become increasingly suspect, as the man battles with the pressures of Test rugby.

Carter is a better player than Donald, but Carter is lacking what all top players need before re-entering the big ring: game time. There are fears that he will not produce a Carteresque performance because of his rushed return, and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has already said we shouldn’t expect any miracles from the man.

Carter should be included in the All Blacks’ match 22 announced this Tuesday, and the the question of his starting should be phrased as such: Is an undercooked Dan Carter still better than a match-fit Stephen Donald?

Consider a number of factors before supplying what you consider to be an obvious answer.

The All Blacks have lost two from three while Australia are yet to win a match in this year’s tournament. The trans-Tasman clash in Sydney is thus vitally important in the context of the Tri-Nations.

Do you start an out-of-form Donald, or an undercooked Carter? The injury to Piri Weepu is also significant when it comes to selection. Carter hasn’t enjoyed much game time alongside Brendon Leonard, who plays with Donald at the Chiefs. Weepu and Carter are a tried and tested halfback combination, and for his first match in a starting role, it would be best to start Carter with a familiar face at No 9. Unfortunately for the All Blacks, Weepu is unavailable through injury.

The selectors are in a difficult position. They’re playing the Aussies in Sydney on the back of two losses to the Springboks, their star flyhalf hasn’t played a Test in nine months, and their incumbent flyhalf is out of sorts. Somehow, they need to squeeze out a win.

The Wallabies’ awful effort at Newlands will give them hope. In their defeat to the Boks, the Aussies were ill-disciplined and their kicking game was uncharacteristically average. They’ve also lost Stirling Mortlock to injury, a loss that’s likely to see Adam Ashley-Cooper move from fullback to centre and James O’Connor starting at No 15.

Targeting the teenager could be New Zealand’s strategy in Sydney, and selecting Leonard and Donald to do so could prove a winning move. Bringing Carter right back into the starting line-up could be the worst thing for an All Blacks’ side desperate for momentum, as while Carter takes his time to resettle at flyhalf the Aussies will settle into their new backline combinatons.

The first half’s going to be massively important, and the team that takes the early initiative could emerge victors. Despite his battle for form, Donald has a huge role to play in this fixture, one way or another. Carter’s unlikely to last the 80 minutes if he starts, so Donald will need to feature at some stage.

It makes more sense to play Donald from the start in the hope of setting a winning platform for Carter to exploit in the latter stages. It’s too much of a gamble to play Carter from the first whistle in such an important fixture. McCaw said don’t expect miracles but the reality is the All Blacks need a match-winning performance now more than ever.

If they’re not looking to Carter for that, they will be looking to Donald. Saturday should be a final opportunity to prove his detractors wrong.

By Jon Cardinelli