Dan Carter’s flame may be fading but his legacy is secure
All Black player of his generation is ending his top-class career as a substitute for Racing
Dan Carter of Racing 92 is tackled by Simon Zebo of Munster during a Champions Cup Round Two match at Thomond Park in October. Photograph: Getty Images
Robbie Deans used to run alongside Neville Carter. Actually, it was the other way round, what with Deans being an All Black in the Canterbury Country’s midfield.
“I met Neville in the grandstand while coaching the Crusaders some time around 1998, and said, ‘tell Dan to be ready because it is going to happen fast’.”
Greatness is unmistakable when it appears on New Zealand rugby’s rugged terrain. Like Shefflin rising from Ballyhale, or Bolt skimming across swollen Jamaican tracks, or Zidane on Marseilles’ dust bowls.
“He was one of those rare kids. Every time he was promoted he looked like he was at the level for a long time. Some guys just got that air about them.”
The future Wallabies coach ran Carter at 12 on entry into the Crusaders set-up and for the All Blacks – as both men were promoted within a year – or any slot they could find in between Andrew Mehrtens, Aaron Mauger and Leon McDonald.
“It fitted our model at the time of two play-makers. It meant Dan had a little more time to see things unfold but he was always ready. You hear about a once-in-a-lifetime bloke pretty quickly. At secondary school level he was behind Cam McIntyre, who just developed physically before him, but you could see Dan was coming.”
After today Dan Carter will have been and gone.
Greatness, while unforgettable, fades in its physical form, and so this 36-year-old ends his top-class rugby career as a sub.
The legacy Carter leaves is beyond reproach, but some of his Parisian adventures seemed so radically out of character.
“He didn’t used to be the source of any grief,” said Deans in disbelief, “I know he had an event recently, but look at the career he has had, there’s remarkably few blemishes for a bloke who has a massive profile. ”
Paris isn’t Christchurch.
“Every context is different, but when you look at his career as a whole, clearly he is a good character. Talk to his peers and they’d tell you the same.”
The “event” – Dan Carter surpassed all expectations at the 2015 World Cup before guiding Racing to their first Top 14 title in 26 years – almost ended in total humiliation as reports surfaced of abnormal urine samples and blowing over the limit at a police checkpoint on the Champs-Élysées.
In February 2017, Carter had been summoned to appear before separate French anti-doping hearings to explain the 81 nanogrammes per millilitre of corticosteroid in his system immediately after the Pro 14 final at Barcelona’s Camp Nou the previous summer.
This 14-man victory over Toulon – after Maxime Machenaud’s early red card – had justified Jacky Lorenzetti making Johnny Sexton’s replacement the highest paid French club player (reportedly on €71,000 a month).
The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) has a limit of 30 nanogrammes per millilitre, so before Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko, Juan Imoff and the Racing doctor were completely cleared of any doping violations the greatest player of this or any generation was forced to linger under damning headlines.
French Federation president Bernard Laporte exonerated the trio and club before any hearing took place. Nothing to see here.
Still, probably not the best time to be done for drink-driving after attending a Champions League game with old pal Ali Williams. Reports state a blood-alcohol level measuring 0.98 grams of alcohol per litre of blood. The legal limit is 0.5 grams.
“No excuses,” Cater declared via social media. “I made a massive error of judgment, and have let down my club, my fans and most importantly my family. I will have to now let the police/court process run its course and face the consequences. I am just glad no one was harmed. Sorry.”
The car sponsorship dissolved, but Adidas and others stayed with the most marketable rugby player on the planet.
“My management and I have had to front up to my sponsors. Not surprisingly, Land Rover, who for good reason have zero tolerance towards drink-driving, have ended their relationship with me. I understand this completely, and am disappointed I put them in this position.”
Lorenzetti built a narrative around a Kiwi superstar exposed to blinding Parisian lights.
“I now know that he has a fault, that of loving the party too much...The financial penalty has been tough, believe me.”
Two weeks later Williams was arrested for buying cocaine outside a Paris nightclub and subsequently sacked by Racing.
Carter, who had no involvement in that situation, returned to the field of play but encountered the oddest feeling of his career when booed off the field after a Racing defeat in March 2017.
Springbok Patrick Lambie arrived this season, and was installed as the starting number 10.
“Dan has kept evolving,” said Deans of the bigger picture that includes remarkable returns from serious injury. “That’s what you got to do because once you become one of the best players in the world there is a lot of scrutiny, and people start devising ways of making your life very difficult, but he kept evolving himself and his teams have kept winning.
“That’s what stands him above the others. He is still doing it to this day by turning himself into an impact player.”
Racing would not be playing in Bilbao but for Carter’s magical cameo to sack Clermont’s Marcel Michelin in the quarter-final.
“Dan has always been very comfortable around the contact. A lot of players can get intimidated and can be pushed off the gainline, forced to sit back and kick, which makes it a lot easier to defend. Dan has never done that. He has lived right in the opposition’s face, and forces teams to defend. It’s that confidence that stands him apart.
“The one element he doesn’t get credit for is how he used to clean up defensively. Because he had the speed and the desire and awareness he’d arrive from nowhere to close a gap. He was always a superb defender.”
Faded pace and tackle technique separates Carter from Sexton but not much else.
“They have similarities because of their consistency. Sexton is in his prime in terms of decision-making, the people around him believe in him, and that is key because a bad idea believed in is better than a good idea not believed in. That’s what you get with time in the saddle, the respect means people will follow you and make good everything you do.”
Imagine Lorenzetti’s delight if Carter, limping past his prime en route to a Japanese pension, trumps the man originally meant to be the jewel in the Racing 92 crown.
His ultimate legacy is secure: the stunning 33 points to capture the 2005 Lions series is probably the best individual performance ever; the 2015 semi-final and final when he nailed vital drop goals that made up for cruel injuries at the 2007 and 2011 tournaments; he turned Super Rugby into a playground; the Bledisloe Cup was his hydration mug as so many of his test record 1,598 points destroyed the Wallaby spirit right up to the last of his 112 caps; three World Player of the Year awards were evenly spread from 2005, 2012 and 2015, before the Bouclier de Brennus became his shield.
“At 36, with that experience under your belt, the game slows down,” said Deans. “You have more time because you start seeing things more clearly.”
This has been the season for drop goals. If it comes down to it Carter is lethal because he doesn’t step into the pocket, he creates unseen space by simply turning inside and letting fly with next to no back swing. Ask the crushed Springboks and Wallabies or today’s reappearing Leinster men about Christchurch in 2012.
Leinster must beware the dying kick of greatness if or when he arrives.