Following his return to the All Blacks’ No.10 shirt for the first time since the victory over England almost a year ago, Dan Carter reflects on the ‘dark days’ of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and his determination to return to his very best for New Zealand’s defence of the sport’s biggest prize next year.
On October 2, 2011, Dan Carter’s world appeared to crumble.
The All Blacks’ fly-half was struck down with a groin injury during his side’s final preparations for a World Cup clash with Canada and the news and images of a stricken Carter sent shockwaves throughout a rugby-mad nation.
Subsequently ruled out of the rest of a World Cup being played on home soil, Carter was left a frustrated observer as New Zealand eventually ended a 24-year drought with victory in the final over France on a memorable night in Auckland.
Carter would eventually return to full fitness the following year and his response when back in black was a string of outstanding performances and his industry and endeavour was rewarded with the title of the best player in the world – for the second time in his career.
Roll forward to present day and Carter is once again vowing to bounce back from injury woe and take his game to unprecedented heights using the same approach that lifted him out of the gloom three years ago.
“It was a really tough time in my career,” said Carter. “When you realise your World Cup dream is over you go to some pretty dark places. But once you get over those disappointments you use it as motivation and that’s exactly what I did.”
Carter remains grateful for the support he received from his family, team-mates and supporters and credits them for leading him back to the light.
“My family were amazing and my team-mates were really supportive but so were the fans, it showed how much people cared about me. It was really humbling and that support helps you get through the tough times and out the other side.”
As you would expect from a player whose commitment to excellence propelled him into the ranks of the world’s best over a decade ago – and has kept him there ever since, Carter wasted little time dwelling on his injury.
“I was determined to work as hard as I could and do whatever I could to get back to the highest level and I think I did that by winning the IRB Player of the Year the following year."
“I also set some long term goals and the 2015 World Cup was one of those but you have to be realistic. Anything can happen and injuries are part of the game, but as long as I am out there and enjoying it and have goals to work towards then I’ll still keep getting out of bed to do the thing I love.”
That reluctance to get too carried away with the chance to return to some unfinished business at the World Cup may well be explained by the influence of a man considered by some to be the glue that bonds the All Blacks together – not head coach Steve Hansen, but assistant manager and former mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka.
A specialist in sports psychology, Enoka has been part of the All Blacks’ set-up since 2000 and has also worked with Carter at the Crusaders during which time he has clearly made a significant impression.
“Gilbert is amazing,” enthused Carter. “He has been there throughout my career and I’ve used him a lot. He works on an individual basis but also in a team capacity as well, so he helps us find the right motivation for each game. He’s an important part of this team.”
Asked about the specifics of Enoka’s approach, Carter is at first reluctant. “I don’t want to give too much away,” he said.
He added: “It really drives the individuals, the team and especially the leaders in the group and helps us all to strive to be the best that we can."
“He really makes sure that you are focused on the here and now. As a fly-half he reminds you that it is not always going to be perfect out on the field, so it’s about how you react. You cannot dwell on the past, you have got to focus on the now and not too far ahead because otherwise you trip up. Living in the present is a big part of what I have been working on.”
That positive outlook may also stem from two other significant event in Carter’s life since the drama of 2011 – his marriage to wife Honor and the birth of their son Marco.
“It certainly puts rugby into perspective a bit more,” said Carter of fatherhood. “It is a special time and it is one of the best feelings in the world, it brings it all back into perspective, you can have tough days when you may not have had the best game but your child has no idea about that and just brings you a lot of joy. It makes you want to work hard and be focused but gives you a good balance in life.”
Carter had hoped to crank up his World Cup preparations earlier this year following a six-month sabbatical designed to prepare his body for the demands of a World Cup year only for injury to strike again with the 32-year-old suffering a broken leg in the Crusaders’ Super Rugby final defeat to the Waratahs in August.
His sabbatical and subsequent injuries allowed his main rivals – Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett – to state their case for the All Blacks’ No.10 shirt and Carter has welcomed the competition.
“That’s the beauty of coming back from injury,” he explained. “You are not rushed back in, there is so much depth in this side and none more so than my position. It’s great to see what they have done all year.”
Carter, a high-profile waterboy for the victory over England at Twickenham, also offered an insight into the enviable team spirit within the All Blacks squad that has been broken just twice in their 40 outings since they lifted the World Cup in 2011.
“We – the 9s and 10s – work really closely and we are always helping each other. A couple of weeks ago, Beauden was the guy not playing but he was sharing information and working extremely hard to make sure the guys that were out on the field were doing what was best for the team and that was exactly the same against England with me. I was in that role and if there was any way I could help Aaron and Beaudy to prepare for the game then I was happy to do that.”
Carter may have 101 Test caps, scored more Test points than anyone who has ever played international rugby and be able to draw on over 11 years of experience at the very pinnacle of the game but he still admitted to nerves ahead of his return to an All Blacks’ line-up against the USA in Chicago earlier this month.
“I think it was the lack of preparation, having only had two kicking sessions in two or three months and a couple of training runs steering things for the team,” said Carter. “I pride myself on being really well prepared, so the lack of preparation did give me a few butterflies but with those nerves comes real excitement so I actually enjoy being nervous.”
After so long away, did he feel he had something to prove? “It’s more about not wanting to let your team-mates down,” he explained. “You are working extremely hard for one another and it’s about repaying the trust and faith shown by the selectors and your team-mates. That hasn’t changed in the 12 years since I first put on the jersey.”