Carter sets seal on gutsy comeback
Dan Carter’s joy was there for all to see following New Zealand’s dominant 34-17 victory over Australia in a compelling Rugby World Cup Final.
The big screens at Twickenham could hardly contain his smile that stretched as wide as The Ditch following a Man of the Match performance that propelled the All Blacks into the history books as the first side to win back-to-back World Cups and the first to win the sport’s biggest prize three times.
It was a far cry from the broken and emotionally drained figure that bravely fronted up to the media in Auckland four years ago after his World Cup dream had been cruelly dashed by a groin injury.
The seeds of Carter’s comeback were sown that dark day and his disappointment at being stripped of a starring role at a home World Cup – even though he ended up with a winners’ medal – and the doomsayers’ predictions that his body had finally let him down fueled his return to top form.
Carter’s revival reached a crowd-pleasing crescendo during the All Blacks’ run to Saturday night’s title-decider with the 33-year-old producing a particularly eye-catching display during the quarter-final destruction of France.
That free-flowing performance included a simply sublime offload that fooled four French defenders and put team-mate Julian Savea in for a try. Carter was clearly fit, firing and having fun – but there was better to come on an even bigger stage.
No doubt aware this would be his last appearance in the world famous jersey before a high-profile move to France and out of the All Blacks’ selection picture, Carter attacked the final with the understandable hunger of someone with something to prove.
But crucially there was also control and clinical composure – most notably when he slotted a superb drop goal that gave the All Blacks some priceless breathing room with just ten minutes to play.
Carter had no time and no space but it was no problem for the in-form fly-half whose sweetly-struck kick took New Zealand’s lead out to a converted score and dented the Wallabies’ hopes of completing a stunning comeback having reduced an 18-point deficit to just four.
Within five minutes he had also hammered over a long-range penalty from just inside the Wallabies’ half to all but seal his side’s triumph. He would not be denied.
However, his industry and influence was not confined to the creative side of the All Blacks’ game with his enthusiasm also powering him to 12 momentum-sapping tackles – a total exceeded by only Australia’s Dean Mumm (15).
It was fitting that Carter provided the finishing touches to the All Blacks’ victory with a cheeky right-footed conversion that underlined his enviable skill set and rounded out his 19-point haul.
As stressed by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen ahead of the final, this game was never going to define Carter’s international career as he was already in possession of one of the most impressive CVs in the history of the sport.
His achievements up to this point included two World Rugby Player of the Year awards, a key role in destruction of the British & Irish Lions in 2005 and Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship success while over 112 Test caps and a world record 1,598 points underline his enviable ability to repeatedly deliver excellence.
But the game could – and would – provide a perfect punctuation mark after 12 years of distinguished service that Carter himself ranked above any that had preceded it.
“This win is right up there with everything I’ve done in my career – it is the ultimate achievement,” he said following his fairytale ending.
Carter was no doubt reflecting on the particularly difficult journey that led to this final magical moment.
“It was a pretty tough and dark place four years ago,” added the most talented playmaker of his generation. “I would have loved to have been part of that World Cup final in New Zealand and I’ve had to work extremely hard to be here today.”
But as is the All Blacks’ way, Carter refused to hog the limelight and instead highlighted the combined effort that had secured the World Cup crown.
“I’m just so proud of the guys and what they’ve achieved,” he added. “Back-to-back World Cups, it is something no other team has done before and it just goes to show how special this group is.”
Of course this is not the end for Carter who will soon embark on a new challenge with French club side Racing Metro and he may well revisit another injury-induced scar.
His previous stint in France with Perpignan in 2009 was brought to an abrupt end by an Achilles injury and in this kind of form he could yet add to that glittering rugby CV with a Top 14 or European Champions Cup title.
You would not put it past him.