Cruel end for Carter
October 3, 2011
Dan Carter deserved better than to have his Rugby World Cup ended prematurely by injury © Getty Images
Dan Carter's exit from this World Cup probably brings down the curtain on his World Cup career. He is unlikely to appear four years hence in England.
His importance to the All Blacks' chances of success this time around is obvious. So obvious that even two years ago he could be identified as being at the centre of two potential nightmare scenarios for All Black coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen. The other involved skipper Richie McCaw, himself absent against Canada due to injury and around whom there will be accumulating anxieties as the tournament proceeds through the knock out phase.
If Carter's irreplaceable status has long been recognised and endlessly documented, then the lack of planning contingent on his absence was glaringly exposed in that final pool match against Canada. Back -up Colin Slade was selected in the World Cup squad on the back of an injury-disrupted season and unconvincing Tri-Nations form. His early nerves were painful to behold, his second half shifting to the wing a humiliation that did not make much sense of the man-management skills of the All Black selectors.
While Piri Weepu showed some good touches, nobody can forget that he is a halfback and his inclusion as the quarter-final starting fly-half would represent a huge gamble on the part of the selectors. So too would the selection of Manawatu's Aaron Cruden, or the retention of Slade. But that is what I believe should happen, this is the moment they have to back their original selection and work to ensure a return on the effort so far invested in the Cantabrian. This is a pivotal moment in Henry's coaching career, the moment that identifies him as a truly great coach. Or not.
Other significant issues arising out of the Canadian match involved two players appearing for the first time in this tournament - Mils Muliaina and Zac Guildford. The veteran fullback is widely regarded as having endured an average super rugby season, the loss of pace having taken the edge off his game. His relative decline has been accentuated by the dazzling form of Hawke's Bay's youngster Israel Dagg but, perversely, Carter's absence now offers Muliaina a potential route back into the All Black starting line-up against Argentina. With a rookie fly-half calling the shots, is this now the time to discard Muliaina and the wealth of experience and leadership qualities he brings to the side?
Guildford, a slightly surprising inclusion at the expense of both Sitiveni Sivivatu and Hosea Gear, seemed destined to endure a barren campaign after the humiliation of his booze-related show trial/press conference two weeks ago. However, his four tries against Canada and the overall quality of his first half performance was a timely reminder of the reasons he was selected in the first place and the qualities he brings to the All Black game plan. Were his work rate and expert finishing sufficient to gain him selection over Cory Jane, Richard Kahui or Israel Dagg? Probably not.
Carter's injury also has an impact on the choice of half back, assuming that Slade starts at No.10. Weepu's form and fitness have improved as the tournament has progressed and he is now clearly the first choice No.9. His confidence and big match temperament are exactly what the All Blacks now require, his footballing skills and kicking game tailor-made to complement the more orthodox and less expansive game of Slade.
Kieran Read's timely return from injury is, in retrospect, even more timely. His absence throughout the pool stage stretched back row resources alarmingly and underlined Read's importance to this side. Jerome Kaino's form throughout has been formidable and in alliance with Read and McCaw he forms one of the world's great back rows. Victor Vito profited from Read's injury and could yet play a crucial back row role if fitness becomes an issue for either McCaw or back row utility Adam Thomson. Vito looked comfortable at No.7 against Canada, far more comfortable than when appearing at no.8
As this World Cup enters the knock-out phase, New Zealand's attention has been grabbed by the agony of Dan Carter's injury. The collective gnashing and wailing is audible, revealing a nervousness and apprehension which would perhaps surprise overseas observers of the game.
Whilst the absence of one of the world's great rugby stars is a blow to the confidence of the All Blacks and their coaches, it is hard to accept the view that their chances of World Cup success are dependent solely on the form and fitness of their accomplished playmaker. I believe we will see the team respond as All Black teams have always responded, Carter's absence will be compensated for in all sorts of conceivable, and many not so conceivable ways.
The All Blacks have not suddenly become a poor team and their chances of ultimate World Cup success have not diminished markedly in the absence of their influential No.10. Let's just hope that McCaw does not succumb to injury.
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