How to make a great All Black

The greatest of all time? Dan Carter went out on a high at the World Cup. (Reuters)

The greatest of all time? Dan Carter went out on a high at the World Cup. (Reuters)

To get to the roots of New Zealand’s recent World Cup final win, it helps to go back to 1990. That’s when Dan Carter, still some distance from the feats that would eventually see him heralded as the finest fly-half of rugby’s professional era, turned eight. For his birthday present that year, Carter’s parents installed a set of full-size goalposts in the backyard of their home in Southbridge, a small town 45km south of Christchurch.

“I would literally spend hours every day kicking, through obstacles on the lawn, through trees, over neighbours’ fences, whatever I could do to make things more difficult for myself,” says Carter, speaking on the phone from Auckland, where he’s just put the finishing touches to his new book, Dan Carter: My Story.

“I absolutely loved the feeling of connecting with the ball and watching it sail through the posts.
It’s because of all those hours in the backyard that I developed my own style – I never copied any other kicker, I just developed my own way of doing it, through different positions and situations.”

His own style. When professional footballers, no matter the code, speak of style, they’re usually referring to something that’s apparent to the external observer, a technical calling card or a way of moving on the field that’s somehow idiosyncratic or unique: David Campese and his goose-step, the Sonny Bill Williams offload, Cristiano Ronaldo’s motor legs and fabulously still dribbling head. But in many senses Carter’s style, on his best days, has been defined more by an absence of style, by the unobtrusive efficiency of his movements with ball in hand and at foot.

Like a master surgeon, the mark of his greatness has been a lack of external marks; he’s become invincible by appearing almost invisible.

As a goalkicker there’s never been anything particularly remarkable about the way Carter places the ball or approaches his run-up: no Goromaru-style prayer clasp, nothing like Dan Biggar’s faintly erotic pre-kick touch-and-shuffle. The defining moment of the final against the Wallabies – and the moment that completed Carter’s journey from eight-year-old Southbridge kicking enthusiast to double World Cup winner – captured this surgical, invisible quality to his kicking game better than anything.

When Carter received the ball in the 69th minute around 30m out from the Australian try line, the momentum was all with the Wallabies, who’d just come off the end of their stunning 14-point yellow card period. “Two minutes before I was trying to set myself up for a drop goal play, but it just wasn’t working,” recalls Carter. “We weren’t getting over the advantage line enough and I didn’t have the space.”

But not having space wouldn’t matter, in the end. The All Blacks swept upfield with their characteristic wolfpack menace; their lead now cut to four and their attack so dominant when the match had been 15-on-15, they were surely gunning for another try.

The configuration of the backline as the ball was cleared from the ruck to Carter suggested the start of another phase, spreading the play left to right, with ball in hand; the All Blacks were flat, not deep in anticipation of a long cutout pass to give Carter time to set himself for a shot at goal. Carter took a step to the right, Sonny Bill Williams hanging off his shoulder and moving up in expectation of the pass. Then, with the Wallabies defence rushing at the string of attackers to Carter’s right, the All Blacks fly-half popped the ball through the posts.

“I wasn’t in position, I wasn’t even really expecting the ball,” says Carter. “But I got it and just made a snap decision to have a crack. It was a total spur of the moment thing.” With almost no backlift from his kicking leg, nothing telegraphed, and little the Australians could do to stop him, Carter supplied the moment of individual, spontaneous virtuosity that switched the momentum of the game and kept the Webb Ellis trophy in New Zealand. If the mark of sporting genius is to strike hardest when it’s least expected, here, surely, was proof of genius.

Drop goals have never really been New Zealand’s thing. Where the recent history of rugby’s other leading nations can almost be told with just a timeline of significant drop goals – Jonny Wilkinson in 2003, Rob Andrew in 1995, Jannie de Beer and Stephen Larkham in 1999 – the All Blacks have kept their distance, perhaps seeing it as too cheap, too obvious a way to accumulate points, as somehow beneath New Zealand’s tradition of charging, relentless, ball-in-hand running rugby.

But Carter’s effort was somehow true to his way of playing the game and worthy of the All Blacks’ rich tradition of improvisation. If the 2015 campaign of the world’s leading rugby nation is to be associated with a mere drop goal, it’s perhaps appropriate that the kick in question was such a shining, spontaneous, original example of the form.

The kick was memorable above all for its expression of a certain idea of adaptability – a quality Carter stresses is key to the way the All Blacks play the game. “That’s what the coaches in New Zealand drive home more than anything else,” he says. “Structure is important but it’s even more important not to be robotic. We play in a pretty free-spirited way – we keep all our options open, back our instincts and switch things up based on what the defence presents.”

The two kicking coaches he’s stayed closest to over the years – league legend Daryl Halligan and former AFL kicking star Mick Byrne – have stressed the same point, Carter adds. “They never tried to change my style,” he says. “Everyone has their own style, and they should keep that. Individuality is important.”

When Steve Hansen took over from Graham Henry as head coach of the All Blacks in 2012, he gave his players a very clear goal: to become the most dominant side in the history of world rugby. The inevitable, pedantic squabbles over the difficulty of comparing players and teams of different eras aside, few would disagree that the 2015 All Blacks team have a very strong claim to being the greatest of all time.

But what do the players themselves think? Professional athletes are so trained in the art of public even-temperedness these days, it’s normal to expect Carter – whose off-field politeness and general good-guy charm are by now almost a cliche – to respond with deflecting blather. Instead, he’s admirably forthright in admitting that Hansen’s challenge – the greatest of all time goal, if you like – was a powerful motivating tool for a team that, following its home World Cup triumph in 2011, seemingly had little left to prove.

“There’s something so powerful, so lofty, and so far in the distance about the ambition, you always wanted to get there,” he says. “It drove us on. To break as many records as we did, to do things that no other rugby team in the history of world rugby has …” He takes a moment to pause. “You know you’re getting close.”

Carter can afford to be reflective: the final at Twickenham marked his last appearance in an All Blacks shirt, and his creaking 33-year-old body can look forward to easing into international retirement with a three-season battering in France’s brutally competitive Top 14.

Carter, who will join Paris’s Racing Metro next year, is one of six All Blacks to call it quits after the final; between them these players boast 700 Test caps. Any other rugby nation would require years, perhaps two whole World Cup cycles, to regenerate after a loss of experience that substantial; but this is New Zealand, a near-perfect, near-continuous factory of high-grade rugby talent, and Carter is confident his successors will match, and possibly exceed, the glories of the past half-decade.

“The future will always be bright in New Zealand rugby,” he says. “You know that the All Black environment, the All Black way of living, is not going to fall over just because six guys left.”

It’s illuminating that he can speak with such pride of the All Blacks as a “way of living”. Based on the past decade’s (pre-Michael Cheika) experience it would be impossible, say, to speak of a “Wallaby way of living” in anything other than heavily ironic tones. Carter devotes much space in his book to dissecting the special rituals – the “clubrooms”, team court sessions, and tiny acts of deference, all designed to reinforce the team’s sense of discipline and solidarity –that make the All Blacks “way of living” so successful.

At one point he tells the story of how, after his first game with the Crusaders, he earned the ire of his elder team-mates by downing a beer on the team bus. This went against doctor’s orders: in the game just concluded, he’d sustained a haematoma and been told not to drink while his body recovered. Justin Marshall, spying the young five-eighth with a tinny in hand, summoned him to the back of the bus.

If there are more frightening sights I’ve faced than Justin Marshall and Mark Hammett on that evening, I’ve forgotten them.

“Are you having a beer?” Justin asked.

“I’m only having one.”

“Did you get injured today?”

“I got a haematoma,” I said.

“What did the doctor say? Don’t drink,” said Justin.

“I’m only having one,” I repeated, foolishly.

“Right,” said Marshall. “Chop it.” I sculled it back. “Chop another one”, I was told. I was racing someone, one of Mehrts or Aaron Mauger, which made it doubly humiliating – being punished by and in front of my heroes. It kept going until I’d had four beers in no time at all. I was half cut and entirely embarrassed.

Finally, they let me go back to the front of the bus. I sat, dejected, at the front, thinking about how a week out from my first proper game of Super Rugby I’d jeopardised my recovery and ended up looking a fool to the rest of the team. I made doubly sure to follow doctor’s orders from then on.

Humility, as Carter sees it, is the key to what has made the All Blacks such an unstoppable machine of sporting excellence. “After every Test match we play, no one leaves until the changing room is spotless, just like it was when we walked in,” he explains, by way of example. “You see guys who’ve played over 100 Test matches taking 10 minutes at the end of a bruising game to pick up rubbish. Little things like that make a huge difference.”

Following the shock of recent events in Paris, Carter admits to some unease about taking his family – wife Honor and sons Marco (two) and Fox (nine months) – over to live in the French capital for the next three years. But with characteristic diplomacy, he adds: “It’s so fresh and so early, all our concern and thoughts are really with the people we know in Paris. We have time to sort through our own plans, but right now this isn’t about us at all.”

The plan once he gets there, as he puts it, is to “keep playing for as long as I can”. After that, all the options are on the table. With his chiselled looks and low-key charm, it’s not hard to see how he might ease through his 30s and 40s with the type of second act typical of a corporate-friendly former sporting superstar: a tidy career modelling luxury watches, say, or running a mini-chain of high-end trattorias.

But you get the sense Carter yearns for something more adventurous. Neither politics nor the media interest him, but business does – though he happily admits to having no precise post-rugby plans. “I love the commercial side of sport, so if there’s something I can do to help young players deal with that side of things, that would be great. But I’m not really sure.”

And let’s be honest, it probably doesn’t matter that the plan is vague. Carter has adaptability on his side, and besides, he’s the Greatest of All Time. And the GOAT does as the GOAT pleases. – © Guardian News & Media, 2015

  Dan Carter: My Story, with Duncan Grieve, published by Harper Collins

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