Stage set for Carter

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day Sport Monthly column, says Dan Carter will define the All Blacks’ World Cup challenge.

In 1987 it was John Kirwan. In 1991 David Campese. In 1995 and 1999 it was Jonah Lomu. In 2003 it was Jonny Wilkinson and in 2007 it was Bryan Habana. Tim Horan, in 1991 and 1999, was also outstanding, but when it comes to Rugby World Cups it seems the stage is made for wingers.

Wilkinson, England’s flyhalf general, was the exception and I believe in 2011 in New Zealand a flyhalf will also prove the exception to the wing monopoly of World Cup superstars.

New Zealand’s Dan Carter will be playing in his third World Cup, but circumstance and injury made his appearances in Australia in 2003 and France in 2007 seem like an afterthought. This is his tournament to control and conquer. This is his time; his occasion.

Australia have some wonderful talent in Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor, but there are still too many questions about the ability of the pack to dominate sufficiently, especially against the physical northern hemisphere forward units. In particular I think of England, who have found Australia charitable opposition in the World Cup, having beaten them in 1995, 2003 and 2007.

New Zealand, as always, have the best balanced team at the tournament, but as they know this guarantees nothing. What they have lacked is a bit of luck and a general who has dictated how they play, where they play and just how much they play.

All World Cup-winning teams need a brilliant decision-maker at No 9 or 10. In 1987 the All Blacks had David Kirk and Grant Fox as the halfbacks. In 1991 Australia dominated with Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh. The Springboks, in 1995, had Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky. In 1999 Australia found inspiration from George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. In 2003 it was the Wilkinson show, although the role of Mike Catt at inside centre can’t be ignored. And in 2007 Fourie du Preez stood tallest of the No 9s and Butch James prospered in the Bok No 10 jersey.

All those teams had packs that never took a step backwards and it makes it so much easier for a general to call the shots in an advancing cause.

The All Blacks, in 2011, have the pack to dominate. They also have Carter, who in my view is the best flyhalf produced in the professional era. He is quite possibly the best flyhalf ever to play the game. There may be others who have a greater individual skill, but no other flyhalf can claim to have it all. Carter can kick, he can run, he can pass, he can think and he can tackle. In the home leg of the Tri-Nations he made 27 tackles and missed two. Only Richie McCaw made more tackles in the two matches against South Africa and Australia.

Carter’s goal-kicking accuracy, which at the start of his career was in the 80s, has suffered most because of ankle and Achilles’ operations and he is more a 75% goalkicker than an 80% machine. I’d still bank him to kick the ones that matter and his 61m penalty against the Boks at Loftus in 2006 has only been matched by Frans Steyn’s strike against the All Blacks in Hamilton in 2009.

Carter can kick, as the Wallabies found out at Eden Park in August, and rarely has the Kiwi failed to deliver in the big moments.

In 2007 he struggled because he rarely played. All Blacks coach Graham Henry’s decision to rest Carter and the core of his All Blacks during Super Rugby and then rotate them every second Test before the World Cup meant they were underdone and never found the rhythm that comes from the weekly intensity of playing against the best.

Carter, in 2011, is playing like the Carter who left the British & Irish Lions spellbound in 2005. Most rate his performance against the Lions in Wellington in the second Test as the most complete ever produced by a flyhalf in the modern era. I won’t disagree, but I think his recent performance against Australia in Auckland was as good as what he delivered in Wellington six years ago.

The opposition, for a start, was better. Carter kicked five from five against Australia, snapped over a drop goal, broke the line regularly, mixed up his tactical kicking with grubbers,
chip kicks and long-range touch finders and made 14 tackles, two of which were try-savers.

His tackle on Australia captain Rocky Elsom was particularly impressive and his composure in leading the defensive line was a lesson to those players who are not quite the finished article yet. Here I think of Cooper, in particular, who was on the receiving end of Carter’s master class.

England’s Wilkinson is an all-time great but Carter is a better version of Wilkinson, especially on attack. Wilkinson has never enjoyed Carter’s pace or acceleration and he has never played the attack so close to the point of collision.

Wilkinson, in 2003, was always going to define England’s challenge. It will be the same for Carter and the All Blacks in 2011.

Carter has set such high standards in the past that when he plays well it seems he is off his game. People demand the exceptional from an exceptional player.

He delivered in Auckland against Australia and he will deliver again in Auckland in October, quite possibly against Australia again.

– This column first appeared in the September issue of Business Day Sport Monthly