Sports writer Nathan Limm sat down with former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry to chat about Dan Carter’s incredible highs and lows
By Nathan Limm
A total of 1598 test points, 112 test caps. Two Rugby World Cups.
It’s no secret Dan Carter’s been one of the most influential rugby players globally in the last 20 years.
So when arguably the greatest fly-half to ever lace up the boots announced his retirement in February from the sport, it’s no wonder the world takes a moment to reflect on his career.
The three-time World Player of the Year set the world alight in 2005. Who could forget his 33-point masterclass in the second test against the Lions, heralded by many as the most exceptional performance ever by a first-five eighth?
Then there’s his man-of-the-match effort in the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup – Carter’s last in the black jersey – when he slotted a 40-metre drop goal to give New Zealand an eight point buffer over our trans-Tasman rivals.
Sir Graham Henry, Carter’s coach at the highest level from 2004 to 2011, spares no praise in his assessment of the veteran.
“His longevity and success have been phenomenal. He’s such a marvellous influence on the game. He would be the best first-five ever in 120 years of international rugby. It was very unusual to have a five-eighth that had all the attributes. This guy had no weakness.”
Although Carter made his debut for the All Blacks in 2003, he didn’t burst onto the world stage until a year later on New Zealand’s northern tour.
The then 22-year-old had played nearly all his professional rugby for the Crusaders and the All Blacks at second-five.
Henry admits it was a gamble naming Carter their number one fly-half for the tour but says it couldn’t have worked out better.
“There was a bit of an unknown whether he could play first-five eighth. We took a punt on him – that’s Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and myself – and it all turned to gold. We knew we had someone of high quality then, we just didn’t know how good he was going to be.”
His standout performance came in the final game of the series against France, European champions at the time.
Carter cleverly orchestrated his team’s assault and went on to score a try, kick four penalties and four conversions. New Zealand macerated Les Bleus 45-6.
From there, Carter grew from strength to strength. His dismantling of the Lions and maiden World Player of the Year award in 2005 were merely checks on the calendar.
By this point New Zealand’s first-choice 10, he began to influence the way the All Blacks functioned as a squad. Including, Henry says, the way they were coached.
“He always said to me “let’s try to keep this as simple as possible” because I was a wee bit too complex. He taught me a lot of things as well. Simplicity is best. So instead of having 20 plays we’d have 10, and we’d have varieties on those plays.”
During his tenure, Henry formed a senior leadership group among the players. With the skipper Richie McCaw as the leader and motivator, Carter became commander of New Zealand’s attack.
“Daniel was the navigator of the team; he called the shots…He gets very involved in the purpose and the sorts of behaviours that achieve that purpose; how the team conducts itself. He transfers a lot of information onto the younger players in the team who highly respect him.”
As the tactician, Carter needed a ruthless ability to make decisions on the fly. Henry says the level of understanding he possessed was developed both on and off the pitch over a number of years.
“He had a map in his mind and he knew what calls to make on various parts of the field. He would work religiously off the field to make sure he had the game plan very clear in his mind so when he got on the field it wasn’t a big issue.”
But while the former All Black’s numbers set him apart from world competition, it’d be a mistake to gloss over the most prominent challenges of his career.
With feet like fireworks, a left boot worthy of an Oscar and a rugby mind like no other, it quickly became clear Dan Carter’s only competition for the black number 10 jersey was, in fact, Dan Carter.
He repeatedly sustained injuries at the most crucial stages in his career.
Carter limped off the field in New Zealand’s devastating quarter-final loss to France in 2007, but perhaps his most disastrous injury came four years later, in 2011.
The All Blacks were training in Wellington ahead of their final pool match with Canada, when Carter, routinely practicing his goal kicking, freakishly tore his adductor tendon off the bone. The dream was over.
Even now, the memory sends shivers down the spine of the former All Blacks coach.
“He was going to be captain of the All Blacks for the first time in that game. That was a massive, massive moment in that particular World Cup, ‘cause he was worth 20 points to us.”
Injuries continued to plague his career and with increasing criticism from the public and the media, pressure began mounting on the seasoned first-five.
Henry says Carter himself began to question his ability to survive at the highest level.
“He had self-doubts on whether his body would stand up to the rigours of international rugby. That was his challenge and it was reinforced by recurring injuries. He hadn’t done what he wanted to do as an international footballer.”
In 2015, it clicked.
Carter showed signs of brilliance in what would be his last home test, jinking his way through the Wallaby defence to set up Dane Coles for the first try in the All Blacks’ 41-13 demolition job at Eden Park.
This continued into the World Cup.
His crucial drop goals against South Africa in the semi-final and then Australia in the final have come to be hallmarks of his career.
After all the years of heartache, Henry bets the World Cup trophy, man-of-the-match honours and the World Rugby Player of the Year award felt pretty bloody good.
“He was at the peak of his powers and he ran the ship superbly. That 2015 final is probably the game that he would look back on as the pinnacle of his career.”
Although it was years ago now he departed from the television screens of Kiwi rugby fans, it is important to once again acknowledge the rarity of Carter’s talent and the privilege of watching him play.
One can only wonder whether we’ll ever see talent of his nature grace our rugby fields again.
- Nathan Limm is a 20-year-old student in the third year of his journalism degree. He has grown up and done all his schooling in Howick, most recently attending Howick College. He is currently working as a sports journalist with Newstalk ZB.