The phone call from hell
April 18, 2011
Every Kiwi's biggest fear ahead of this year's World Cup is losing star fly-half Dan Carter to injury © Getty Images
"Hello, Graham. Bad news I'm afraid. The injury is just not responding to treatment. Dan won't be fit in time for the World Cup." Graham Henry's worst nightmare. The phone call from hell. The All Blacks will have to make do without Carter.
Pure fantasy at this stage, of course, but a fantasy which brings into sharp focus the options, or lack of, available to coach Henry and his fellow selectors/coaches as they survey the Super Rugby scene with their attention very much on the composition on the All Black squad later in the year. A possible nightmare which darkens with the news that possible back-up Colin Slade is probably out for the rest of the season after re-breaking his jaw at the weekend.
Carter's absence these past few weeks, although he is thought likely to return against the Highlanders this weekend, has caused nervousness amongst rugby folk in New Zealand and Graham Henry, sitting in the stands as the Crusaders got the better of the Chiefs at Mt Maunganui, did not look like Mr. Relaxed.
In a country not short of sporting heroes, but where there is a reluctance to trumpet the heroic exploits of those individuals who perform extraordinary feats, the attention being focused on Dan Carter does seem out of national character. The All Blacks have always been the team par excellence, the whole invariably greater than its constituent parts, the machine most likely to intimidate with its aura of almost-invincibility. But in 2011, despite the quality which runs right through the current All Black squad, there does seem to be an inordinate amount of energy being focussed on the well-being of two individuals: Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Were Carter not to make it to the World Cup, and that is still a huge, speculative leap to make, but I suppose one which All Black management would be wise to make, who could possibly wear the No.10 jersey? Before we get down to names and start making a few suggestions, what is the skill set that Carter offers and which any possible replacement would need to be able to offer ?
Goal-kicking. Carter is a supreme goal-kicker, the man the All Blacks can always rely on for points. All possible replacements clearly offer goal-kicking options, as the No.10 in the modern game is invariably the goal-kicker. Vision and tactical awareness. Carter is the All Blacks' navigator, the man who plots their course on-field. Defensive impregnability. Carter does more than his share of tackling duties.
Now for some names: Aaron Cruden, Mike Delany, Stephen Donald, Luke McAlister. Colin Slade has been excluded because it looks like his jaw injury will make the decision for the selectors. It is mpossible to see how the selectors could be looking outside that list, although their choice of scrum-half could yet have a bearing if the No.10 has to be someone other than Carter.
Jimmy Cowan is currently first choice half-back, with Piri Weepu returning to club football at the weekend following a prolonged injury absence. Whilst there is not much to choose between these two when both are playing at the top of their form, Weepu does offer a goal-kicking option, probably a better option than any of the alternative fly-halves, except possibly McAlister.
McAlister has made 30 test appearances for the All Blacks, but has struggled at all levels since returning to New Zealand in 2009 after playing in Europe following the 2007 World Cup. Whilst he is playing at second five eighth, he does have test experience at first five. I don't sense great enthusiasm for McAlister as an option, but he could come into the equation if Cowan remains first choice scrum-half and the fly-half needs to be the goal-kicker.
Donald has played 22 tests without really showing the necessary authority at test level. He does make mistakes and his mistakes tend to get magnified by the press. To be fair to Donald, his test form has rarely been as poor as his critics make out, and he would probably walk into the test side of almost any other nation in the world. In the absence of Carter he would be a safe sort of selection, but his presence would create nervousness amongst spectators and coaches alike.
Cruden's omission from the 2010 end of season touring party to Europe seemed baffling at the time. It now looks like a serious error of judgement. He made six test appearances last year, mostly off the bench, and it looked like he was being groomed as Carter's post-World Cup successor. But his development was halted by that omission and he has struggled in 2011 to regain his confidence and form. His participation in this year's World Cup would represent a leap into the dark.
The Chiefs' Delany made one test appearance in 2009, against Italy on the end of season tour, but subsequent injuries have disrupted his progress. He is a mercurial player, flashes of his ability to take the ball to the defensive line and then create danger with the quality of his passing, was evident in his side's weekend loss to the Crusaders.
Carter is simply one of the all time greats and is, let's face it, irreplaceable. But if Henry's hand were forced he might consider these combinations: McAlister at No.10 if Cowan is the preferred scrum-half ; Delany at No.10 with Weepu the goal-kicker at scrum half. Or, if things were really desperate, Weepu at No.10, where he has played a lot of rugby, and Cowan at scrum-half.
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