Rugy World Cup 2011
Don't dream it's over
October 3, 2011
New Zealand's Daniel Carter winces in pain after injuring his groin during a training session in Wellington on Saturday © Getty Images
New Zealand is no stranger to the odd tremor but the whole country has never been rocked at the same time - until last Sunday. But on this occasion it was not an act of nature that brought the nation to a standstill, it was the news that Dan Carter, the All Blacks' most potent weapon, will play no further part in their quest for Rugby World Cup glory.
The signs were not good when word of Carter collapsing in training reached the public domain and the pictures of the most talented fly-half of his generation writhing in agony did little to calm the nerves of the rugby-mad public. Social media networks were buzzing with rumour for the next few hours and a nation held its breath but you somehow knew that the diagnosis would not be good as grey skies and rain descended on much of the country.
Confirmation of the worst possible news for Kiwi fans - a torn adductor longus tendon - finally came in the early hours of Sunday morning and churches around the country are sure to have benefitted as desperate supporters went in search of some reassurance that their side could weather this body blow. But the pain felt by the 'stadium of four million' will be nothing compared to the heartache felt by the player himself.
Cruelly sidelined through injury at the last World Cup just as his side's challenge faltered, everything that Carter has done on a rugby field since that day has been geared towards this tournament. This was to be his stage. In the prime of his sporting life and playing on home soil as part of arguably the most talented squad competing for the game's biggest prize, Carter appeared destined to steer his side into the record books.
He had already offered glimpses of his brilliance in the victories over Tonga and France and his status within the squad was rewarded with the captaincy for the first time for last weekend's clash with Canada after Richie McCaw was sidelined through injury only for fate to intervene.
"One of the craziest days of my life," reflected the player himself having hobbled into a press conference on Monday. "To be named All Blacks captain...have that taken away from me...and then later to find out that my dream of being in the World Cup was over."
Carter was remarkably positive in front of the world's media who had gathered in North Harbour to hear of the heartache first hand but he admitted that it was a different story "behind closed doors" and that Saturday had been a painful night in more ways than one. The journalists were clearly not the only ones asking question. "I'm constantly asking, 'Why did this happen?" reflected Carter. "And I just don't have the answer."
At 29-years-old he has another World Cup in him as long as he has the hunger to compete and this premature and "gut-wrenching" end to his tournament may well provide the spur to dig in again. As long as he can regain his fitness, and he has battled back before with an Achilles injury striking him down in 2009, a player of his rare skill set and physicality should have no trouble in retaining his place in the pecking order in the coming four years with no heir apparent.
Carter only recently re-signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union for four more years so do not be surprised if he bounces back stronger than ever at RWC'15, fit and refreshed from a second lucrative sojourn in Europe. You can almost see the 'unfinished business' headlines already.
In the immediate future Carter must accept a role on the fringes and by his own admission he is "not the best spectator". Stripped of his tournament accreditation and with it the chance to remain with the squad, he will act as a sounding board for coaches and team-mates and drop in as and when he can while no doubt doing his best to avoid the numerous World Cup adverts and promotions featuring his commercial-friendly features that act as a painful reminder of what could have been.
The loss of Carter is also a significant blow to the tournament. As the biggest advert for the game, the World Cup needs the best players fit and firing to maximise the exposure and Carter, perhaps the best player in the world and the leading all-time Test points scorer, definitely falls into that category. Legends are born and reputations are made on the World Cup stage just look at the history books - Francois Pienaar, Jonah Lomu, John Eales and Jonny Wilkinson all made their names in the sport's showpiece event.
The abundantly-talented Carter appeared destined for similar status but will have to hope for another opportunity while the next generation of players around the world will have to look elsewhere for their inspiration.
Perhaps the most acute pain will be felt by the All Blacks. Carter has cast a long shadow since making the No.10 shirt his own and the coaching triumvirate of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen have long accepted that a like-for-like replacement simply is not currently on the radar.
The debate about an adequate back-up dominated much of the build up to the tournament thanks largely to the fact there was no clear favourite to act as Carter's deputy. Colin Slade and Piri Weepu eventually got the nod but question marks remain about the fitness of both players in addition to their ability to stand-in at stand-off. Aaron Cruden has since joined the selection mix and brings with him some exciting potential but his limited experience is also set to hinder his chances.
To his credit, Carter was quick to offer a text in support to Slade urging him to make the most of his opportunity. He had little time to digest the news himself before lining up against the Canucks and understandably there were a few jitters before he recovered his composure in a competent if not outstanding display. The debate surrounding his future in the role is compounded by further question marks over the identity of the first choice scrum-half and the preferred midfield combination.
But it is not just Carter's playmaking prowess that the All Blacks will miss. He was an equally pivotal figure in the All Blacks defence and as a veteran of 85 Test appearances he brought a wealth of big match experience. He was also the key decision maker in a talent-heavy All Blacks back division and while any potential replacement may be able to follow a game plan, they will not be able to match Carter's all round excellence. That is the harsh truth that Henry and co have known for some time and the rest of the nation will now have to come to terms with.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.