Great Britain

Dan Carter: ‘Rugby needs fun, it needs characters, or it gets stale’

Dan Carter is as bemused as any father of an eight-year-old. “He wishes he was born in Argentina,” he says of his eldest son. “He wants to play for Barcelona and never play for the All Blacks ever. Because he thinks he’s Argentinian.”

Lionel Messi has a lot to answer for. “I wonder how we can commercialise rugby as well as football,” Carter asks, fascinated by the preoccupations of a boy with his hero.

The temptation is strong to point out that for these past 20 years or so, Carter has been rugby’s answer to Messi. If his eldest (he has three boys, with a fourth baby due in June) were to raid his father’s closet and happen upon the Racing kit from Carter’s three years in Paris, only the slightest reorientation of the stripes might convert it into Messi’s Argentina shirt.

The howls of protest from New Zealand would be loud – and indeed from rugby – if the greatest No 10 of the oval branch of the football family were to bend his history towards the round ball in order to appease his son, but Carter seems content in the role of doting father. As one might expect of the family of an All Black and a Black Stick – Honor Carter was a hockey international – sport is everywhere in their lives. From across the globe, the noises off in the Carter house can be heard over the airwaves, regular and boisterous.

Do these boys have any idea who their parents are? “If Marco’s being a bit cheeky, he’ll call me ‘Dan Carter’. His mates know. New Zealand’s a pretty small place. When we were living in France, he had no idea what I was doing. But ask any of the boys, their favourite sport is hockey. Heavily governed by their mother.”

Dan Carter takes on Gavin Henson during the second Lions Test in 2005
Dan Carter takes on Gavin Henson during the second Lions Test in 2005. Photograph: Jason Obrien/Action Images

Honor and Dan Carter will not be forcing any specific sport on their kids, as long as there is plenty of it in their lives, which it seems safe to say there will be. Now settled in Auckland, after his retirement in February, Carter has segued as gracefully as expected into the next stage of his life.

He watches on with that same mix of bemusement and fascination while his old mate Richie McCaw flogs himself round one ultra-endurance race after another. For Carter, life is a few businesses, a few engagements and lots of sport, whether half an hour of circuit training with fellow former All Blacks Doug Howlett, Leon MacDonald and some mates (“We call ourselves the Glory Days”) or ferrying the boys from camp to camp, a bag of balls usually over one shoulder.

Such is his facility for this new domestic existence, the mind goes back to the halcyon days a couple of decades ago when those two boys from separate farming communities in the South Island made their way through each level of rugby in New Zealand and, before long, the world. McCaw was the steely-eyed soul of the All Blacks but Carter embodied the affinity of New Zealand for its rugby ball. Each level was acquired as if no more than a natural development.

Such grace belies the work that takes place beneath the surface. “My natural character is laid-back, but I felt, if I was going to be like that on a rugby field, there had to be a shitload of work off it. A lot of people probably think my career was smooth sailing, but there were a lot of times of difficulty.”

Not so much with the episode that might be said to mark the end of the first phase of his journey, from professional rugby player to ratified untouchable genius. His performance in the second Test against the Lions in 2005 remains the high-water mark for a rugby player anywhere, any time. “I was in the form of my life, playing with so much freedom, carefree a little bit. I was oblivious to the form I was in.”

Sport has come to refer to such a state as “in the zone”. The trouble is, there is only way to go from there. Carter jokes that his next game that year, against the Springboks, was one of his worst, but it was not till 2007 that he endured the first of a series of trials practically biblical in their iniquity. The background accumulation of points and prizes never ceased, but he developed a torturous relationship with the World Cup.

Dan Carter is tackled simultaneously by Vincent Clerc and Thierry Dusautoir during New Zealand’s 20-18 defeat by France in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final.
Dan Carter is tackled simultaneously by Vincent Clerc (second right) and Thierry Dusautoir during New Zealand’s 20-18 defeat by France in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Although the All Blacks had already built something of a reputation as chokers on the highest stage, no one really took it seriously in 2007, given how far ahead they were of the rest of the field. Then came France in Cardiff in a legendary quarter-final and a 20-18 defeat that shaped the team to come.

From out of that trauma, the All Blacks grew into the most successful side in history, but Carter was yet to reach his personal nadir. On the eve of what would have been his first and only game as captain – the last pool match of the 2011 World Cup – in his prime at 29, he tore the adductor muscle from his pubic bone with a kick. Tournament over, a nation in mourning.

“Personally, it’s hard to match that low. I’d been vice-captain for three years, I was in great form, home World Cup. For all that to be taken away … ‘Why me? Why now?’ All those questions. I thought it was my last World Cup.”

The All Blacks rode his loss and, with McCaw himself playing on a broken foot, squeezed home in the final – by one point against France. It is tempting, from the outside, to perceive that as the closest they came to choking, if by choking we mean freezing in the spotlight. In 2007, as in other years, the problem had looked more one of complacency.

Carter rejects the 2011 interpretation but agrees with the complacency charge four years earlier. “In 2007, we thought we were in the semi-final before we’d even played the game. But we weren’t used to the kind of pressure France put us under in the second half. We had no answer. By the end [by which time Carter was off with a calf injury that would have ended his World Cup anyway], we were looking at each other like possums in headlights.”

That defeat changed everything, bar the personnel – a crucial point, believes Carter. The coaches were retained and continuity maintained. McCaw, in particular, went into a zone of his own. “He changed – 2007 really hurt him. It’s almost as if he sacrificed the rest of his life to achieve what he wanted. It was hugely inspiring, but I felt like I lost my mate for a little bit. I just told him I was on the journey with him.”

Dan Carter holds the trophy after New Zealand’s victory against Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final
Dan Carter holds the trophy after New Zealand’s victory against Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Come the 2011 final, the mindset had been transformed. Carter talks of players running towards pressure, relishing it. “The guys were actually excited they were only up by one point. They were looking each other in the eye. ‘Yes, this is the pressure we want.’”

Redemption for the All Blacks, but not quite for Carter. He chose to gear up for one more shot – London in 2015. This is when Carter became less Carter, more McCaw, but the All Blacks became the perfect mix of both. He describes himself as having to “rebuild his body again” over the next four years. He was given a second sabbatical in 2014 to address his gathering injuries, then broke a leg in that year’s Super Rugby final. But he was set on what he describes as “the fairytale finish”.

First, there was, of all assignments, a quarter-final. Against France. In Cardiff. “If you had said in 2007 we could play the same game again …”

This time they won 62-13, but Carter developed a niggle in his knee in the first half. The next day he could barely walk. “I thought: ‘Here we go again. The World Cup curse.’ I didn’t train at all for the semi-final and final, my last two Test matches. But I thought of Richie and his broken foot in 2011.”

By then, it was just about playing. Carter and McCaw were the outstanding performers in the final, the great men rediscovering the best of themselves on the grandest stage, the stakes at their highest, as New Zealand beat Australia 34-16 to become the first team to win consecutive World Cups.

Dan Carter in July 2020 kicks a ball at what had been his first goalposts at his family home in Southbridge, New Zealand
Dan Carter in July 2020 kicks a ball at what had been his first goalposts at his family home in Southbridge, New Zealand. Photograph: Kai Schwörer/Getty Images

At 33, Carter had attained his catharsis, but he played on for five more years and won two more trophies, maintaining his record of titles with every first-class team (five) he has represented. He leaves behind a monument of a career, virtually without a chink from whichever angle viewed, one that will loom over rugby for generations. In a rapidly changing sport, it stands as one of the achievements of professional rugby’s early decades.

“We had the best of both worlds. When I started, there were a lot of traits from the amateur era. You were still playing for those beers afterwards. But the game changed pretty quickly – and it really has changed. It’s faster, the players are stronger. There’s so much more science. But you need fun, you need characters. If it gets too serious, it’s going to get stale. There has to be an off switch.”

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Carter has flicked his off switch now, for good. He has no plans to cross the whitewash, even for fun. There is enough on his plate with that burgeoning family.

The day after our interview, Marco Carter was due to play his first game of tackle rugby and Fox his first game of tag. They may yet take on the world. If only they could find a role model.

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