‘I want to be the best’

Dan Carter talks to SA Rugby magazine about his Super 14 struggles, why the All Blacks will pose a serious threat in the Tri-Nations, and his ideal halfback partner.

How’s that Achilles injury?
I’m over it. It was tough being out of the game for five-and-half months, but I believe everything happens for a reason and, in a way, it was good for me. The injury gave me a break from rugby, my first in seven years.

Why did you leave for Perpignan when you were playing so well in New Zealand?
I felt like I would get stale if I played another season for the Crusaders and All Blacks. It’s not good to say, but I needed a fresh challenge. In 2008, Perpignan gave me an opportunity to experience something new and I took the chance to get out of my comfort zone.

Considering you suffered the injury in France, do you regret the move?
Injuries can happen anywhere and at any time. I could’ve torn my Achilles tendon playing for the Crusaders, so no, I don’t regret it. I still enjoyed my stay at Perpignan while I was off the field. The French have a great culture and lifestyle, so it was a good decision.

Has the limelight off the field been a big distraction for you?
At first it was, but it’s my eighth season as a professional so it doesn’t now. I make sure what happens off the field, stays off the field. I want people to take me as a rugby player first and everything else comes second.

How does the European Cup compare to Super Rugby?
It’s tough to judge. The Super 14 is exciting for the spectators with all the tries, but there are so many rivalries in Europe, especially when the European Cup gets to the semi-final stage. The teams play with so much passion, it’s a fantastic competition.

Were you disappointed with your form in this year’s Super 14?
The media criticised me but it was a challenge slotting into a backline where the average age is 23. I was happy with my progress in the earlier rounds but things regressed after the bye [in round seven]. I picked up a hip injury, so that was frustrating as I struggled to regain my form. I’ll play much better as the season goes on.

Many pundits feel your goal-kicking percentage slump is the biggest concern.
It’s something I’m working on and I want to be the best. By striving to be the best goal-kicker, you will get the reward at some stage. Things will get better.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry came out in support of you by saying you are still his first- choice flyhalf. Does that take any pressure off you?
It does a little, but I enjoy having competition for the No 10 jersey. It motivates me. I never take my place in the team for granted and will keep doing the hard work on the field.

There’s a perception that after you, there are no quality New Zealand flyhalves. What’s your take on that?
I disagree. I think Stephen Donald established himself at flyhalf when I was in France and he deserved a place in the team. Although he did suffer a decline in form towards the end of the Super 14, he showed his true potential in the earlier rounds. The future looks good for New Zealand rugby with Stephen Brett [Blues] and Aaron Cruden [Hurricanes] also coming through the ranks.

Who’s your ideal halfback partner at Test level?
I’ve formed a good combination with Jimmy Cowan. He’s a physical type of player and he provides great service. I’ve also formed a good combination with Andy Ellis at the Crusaders. But there’s a lot of competition for the All Blacks No 9 jersey with Brendon Leonard and Piri Weepu on the scene.

Who’s your ideal All Blacks centre pair?
I think Luke McAlister and Ma’a Nonu. The inside centre has to have a good boot and distribution skills but must also be a great ball-carrier. I think Luke fits in well as he’s a big guy and has the skills. Ma’a has good vision and is a major threat with ball in hand.

Do you think the form of New Zealand’s Super 14 teams will have a bearing on the All Blacks?
The New Zealand franchises did have a disappointing Super 14 but I don’t think you can link that to the All Blacks. When you put on that black jersey, it’s something special. You feel like a player on a whole different level. I’m confident the All Blacks will come good this season.

Who do you feel is the best flyhalf in the world on current form?
Matt Giteau. He played extremely well last season and he’s continuing that form at the Brumbies. He’s one talented footballer. Morné Steyn is also one to look out for this season.

What did you think of Steyn’s emergence in the Springbok team last year?
He did very well considering it was his debut season and he made some vital kicks in the Lions tour and Tri-Nations. He leads the team with his boot, but he also showed in the Super 14 that he’s more than just a kicker.

What about Ruan Pienaar at flyhalf?
That’s a tough one. He’s such a natural footballer in any position, whether it’s scrumhalf, flyhalf or fullback. But he could make a great flyhalf. He has the skills, the running game and the boot.

Do you think Butch James could still make an impact for the Boks?
I haven’t seen that much of him recently. But if he’s still that fierce competitor he was when he was at the Sharks, then he can. I remember we were always worried about his physicality before every game.

The Boks won all three Tests against the All Blacks in last year’s Tri-Nations. Did that break the All Blacks’ psychological hold over the Springboks?
The Boks always had challenging times against the All Blacks in the past, so going down 3-0 was tough for us. I guess they can take some confidence out of that, but we weren’t playing well as a team and we had a lot of injuries. We will learn from last season’s mistakes and come out stronger this year.

What’s your take on the new law interpretations?
They’ve helped a great deal with the flow of the game and have made rugby a better spectacle with all the tries. The attacking teams now have some benefits with ball in hand which wasn’t the case last year.

Have the South Africans overtaken the Kiwi teams in terms of attacking flair?
The Australian teams and some of the South African sides adjusted fantastically well during the Super 14. The Kiwi teams were admittedly slow in adapting but I’m sure the All Blacks will thrive under the new law interpretations.

Last year, the Boks played a conservative, yet effective, kick-chase game. How do you think they will play this season?
They did kick a lot last season. But with defence triumphing attack last year, no one wanted to play in their own half and kicked for territory. With the new law interpretations, I think the Boks, like most teams, will keep more ball in hand and kick less.

What did you think of the rotation of the All Blacks coaching duties?
The first change worked very well [when Henry took the forwards and forwards coach Steve Hansen moved to the backline attack]. They’ve reverted to their original positions now, but we will still benefit from it. The coaches work so closely together and they all have input, so it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge of what.

How do you feel about Argentina forming part of the Tri-Nations in 2012?
It’s a great way to freshen up the tournament. Argentina have played very well at Test level and their third-place finish at the last World Cup proves they are a quality side. If they can get their players back from Europe, they will be able to field a great team. Their inclusion will also help make their rugby stronger.

Do you think travelling to South America will be an issue?
Some people are arguing that, but I don’t think it should be. Travelling to other countries is part of the game. I’m sure Sanzar will come up with a suitable solution.

How do you rate the All Blacks’ chances at next year’s World Cup?
We are definitely backing ourselves. We have the team foundation set, we just need to continue building a complete squad. Playing at home will be a big advantage for us, but we have to be consistent. One bad game and you’re out. But from a neutral perspective, I believe it will be a great rugby event.

Will the New Zealand public’s expectation have an effect on the team?
There’s always pressure when it comes to the All Blacks. I guess there will be bigger expectations as we will be in our own backyard. But we can handle it. The players don’t get affected by outside factors.

What do you make of Carl Hayman’s decision not to return to New Zealand for the World Cup?
We would’ve liked to have had him back because he’s a quality tighthead prop. But he obviously had his reasons for staying in Europe and we have to respect that.

Do you think there will be another player exodus to Europe after the World Cup?
There could be. There are guys who will be coming to the end of their careers after the World Cup and some players will want a new challenge. We just have to wait and see how big the demand will be.

Can New Zealand rugby survive another exodus of players?
I’m sure we can. There’s a lot of young talent coming through our Super 14 teams’ ranks. By then, many of the younger players, like Cruden, would have experienced two seasons of Super Rugby, so there will be plenty of depth.

What are your plans for after the World Cup?
I’d love to play my rugby here in New Zealand but it all depends on whether I’m still enjoying it. I had a great time in France and wouldn’t mind going back there. But I will keep my options open for now.

By Gareth Duncan

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine.