MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day newspaper, writes the All Blacks win against France confirmed if you stop Dan Carter you stop New Zealand’s march on a first World Cup success in 24 years. It is something France couldn’t do.
Carter remains the most crucial piece in the All Blacks’ World Cup puzzle. He was better than good against France, but television footage can’t do justice to the quality of performance and the man’s understanding of the game.
Having been fortunate to be at Eden Park there was so much more to marvel at than you ever get to see on the match tape. The camera follows the ball and being at the ground one’s eyes can follow a player. So much rugby is played without the ball and so much of what makes Carter special is what he does without the ball.
His goal kicking remains the only area of his game that is lacking in consistency and that could be a result of an operation to his Achilles heel 18 months ago and issues with a stiff lower back. He has succeeded with eight from 12 kicks in the tournament and whereas the early years of his international career were characterised with percentages near the 80s, in the last four years it has been in the lower 70s.
The tournament goal-kicking percentage at the halfway stage is 60%, with South Africa’s Morne Steyn and the French duo of Morgan Parra and Dmitri Yachvilli the exceptions among those struggling to convert goal-kicking opportunities into points.
Carter, though, is the exception when it comes to possessing every attribute in the ideal flyhalf. Quade Cooper has unique skills, Steyn is a wonderful kicker, Jonny Wilkinson is the master of the drop goal and Ronan O’Gara has enjoyed many an international success, but no flyhalf controls the game like Carter or better understands flyhalf play.
His pack still has to do provide a platform, but there isn’t a flyhalf who takes the ball as flat as he does (Cooper included) and takes as much contact (Wilkinson included). His tackling is excellent, he doesn’t hesitate to clean at a ruck and his feel for making the right decision (with a pass, kick, linebreak or offload, is unmatched in the game.
New Zealand doesn’t have a No 10 remotely in Carter’s class and the vulnerability is – and has always been – that they don’t even have an adequate back-up.
The All Blacks pack fronted against a strong French challenge and the first 10 minutes from France would have damaged most teams. The All Blacks opening 40 minutes was the best produced in the competition.
I felt privileged to be at the match to watch Richie McCaw become the first All Black to 100 Tests. He is a remarkable player and anyone who disputes his quality has no appreciation for a great rugby player. He is also among the most humble of warriors. I have often written if he were South African we’d have a statue of him in every town.
It was poignant that his greatest individual milestone was against the French in a World Cup match because his worst was definitely the quarter-final defeat against France in 2007. The result is more fitting of a career that has produced 88 wins in 100 Tests, in which he has played South Africa and Australia more than 40 times.
Bok captain John Smit was among the first to congratulate McCaw and it said everything about the respect there is for the man in the Bok squad.
One stand out of this tournament is how popular the Boks are in New Zealand and how much respect they have been given for winning the 2007 World Cup. New Zealanders regard the Boks as deserving winners and many here predict they will beat the Wallabies and set up a semi-final in Auckland against the All Blacks.
I have been consistent in my view that the winner will be one of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Australia are vulnerable without David Pocock and New Zealanders hold their breath every time Carter sneezes. South Africa’s problem is when an opposition pack stands firm, meets their challenge in the collisions and forces flyhalf Morne Steyn to play the game from a position too deep to threaten a ball in hand attack.
The Boks against Namibia scored brilliant individual tries, but it was Namibia, who are hopeless, and Samoa’s thumping of Fiji on Sunday hopefully also puts into perspective the Boks demolition job of the Islanders a week ago.
Samoa, with 17 of their match squad based in the northern hemisphere, have sacrificed their natural instinct to have a go from anywhere. They are a conservative side that plays with structure and that will favour the stronger Boks.
Expect the Boks – with Bismarck du Plessis to start – to win well on Friday, but know the biggest challenge in four years will be if they do play Australia a week later in Wellington.
The Wallabies have beaten the Boks five times in the last six meetings and led 24-3 at Loftus in the solitary Bok win. Ignoring that recent history is the equivalent of ignoring the limitations of the All Blacks without Carter.