James Lawton: Unheralded Slade stands a lonely figure in nation mourning its missing genius Carter


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The Independent Online

First dawn down by the water at Tanapuka and Colin Slade, the young, unheralded man who has to walk in the shoes of the world's most talented rugby player, might be forgiven if he falters for a moment, turns and runs.

Yet on Day Eight of what some here are categorising as ADC – After Daniel Carter – Slade keeps moving towards the harsh spotlight that awaits him yet again – and which some countrymen fear could at any moment burn him away.

It helps that he is flanked by two other All Blacks, Mils Mulianina and Kevin Mealamu, who between them have played 188 Tests. Also true is that the kid – if he was 10 years older than 23 coming on 24 he would still be a kid in the wake of the man he calls, without a hint of blasphemy or still less irony simply DC – is a proven fighter.

He doesn't have the sharpness of Carter's mind, nor his smooth Red Bull acceleration. But, certainly, he knows how to fight. His track record since he left Christchurch Boys High School – Carter's Alma Mater – is all about fighting to survive as a credible stand-in for the great man.

He has played in four positions – full back, right wing, centre and fly half, in which last place he replaces Carter for a second World Cup game in tomorrow's quarter-final here against Argentina. He has also had his jaw broken twice, each time returning to the action in record time.

He is asked a question that has been formulated a 100 different ways but each times comes out as fresh evidence of national obsession.

Yesterday he again listened patiently, a bit like someone who has come to understand that if you want something badly enough there are certain times that you have to offer as sacrifice to those who might just be dissuaded from destroying your ambition. Then he said, "I keep being told I'm not Daniel Carter but I know that already – the most relaxing thing is when he talks to me, as he has been doing ever since he was injured, and I just listen to him saying something I know to be true.

"He says I'm playing with great players and no-one is expecting me to do anything more than what I'm capable of. I don't have to go and try and prove I'm DC. He's got it over to me. I guess it's a case of saying, 'yes, whatever DC says.'"

The coach Graham Henry, who was hailed as the Great Redeemer in the Welsh valleys when he came to put in the first building blocks of recovery, is especially brisk on the subject of whether some New Zealanders have skewered their values by equating Carter's injury with the tragedies of real life.

"People around here don't need lessons on what is a tragedy and what isn't," Graham says, " but they know in the context of sport that what's happened to Daniel Carter is tragic. He did so much to earn his place in the sports history of this country."

Slade is asked how it feels to be flanked by Mulianina, who gets his 100th cap because of the injury to the brilliantly emerging full back Isreal Dagg, and Mealamu, the hooker who found some notoriety in the company of his friend and ferocious former team-mate Tana Utaga when they were accused of spear-tackling Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll in Christchurch six years ago. "Of course, it is reassuring – especially when they say everyone has their own responsibility, it's not just me," Slade declares.

Mulianina says, "All you can say is he has earned his place in the team and we have all told him if we lose the World Cup it won't be because Dan Carter's not there – it will be because we haven't played well."

Those who looked beyond the imposing edifice of this team, and the erudition and the intellectual bite of Henry, say the All Blacks are no less susceptible to ambush these next few weeks than they were in the previous five tournaments which followed their one and only victory in the first tournament on home soil in 1989.

They say the departure of Carter is already working at the composure of the team who looked so serene when he was the master puppeteer in the destruction of the French in a group game – and growing doubts about the ability of captain Richie McCaw to last the coursecould well cause further erosion against Argentina.

The bleakest forecasts speak of an old national paranoia and, for all the protests of Henry and the Praetorian guard which still forms potentially the most devastating back room in all of rugby, it is pointed out that however much the inherent nerve of Slade is talked up, he made an agonisingly slow start in the final group victory over Canada.

The worry is McCaw, forced to work in training shoes and a reduced schedule because of the piece of metal inserted during a foot operation, is playing on as some kind of antidote to the damage caused by Carter's sickening departure.

Oscar Wilde was damning about children who lost both their parents but how would the All Blacks stay out of the orphanage – or away from the heel of either South Africa or Australia in the semi-finals in the absence of not just Carter but also McCaw.

Henry, who was so dismayed when his team crumbled four years ago to an outbreak of French brilliance on what seemed like the point of their disintegration, is, it seems, willing to play all morning long the game of shoring up the belief of his men.

Mention any of his troops and the coach who at times can growl and dicker like some back-street politician is for today's purposes as expansive as a big-shot version on the campaign trail, is close to purring.

Did someone ask if the quick, pugilistic Sonny Bill might operate one day operate as a flanker after his all-purpose days as a running back? "It's an interesting idea," says Henry. "I've never thought about it but this is a player who sometimes has you thinking he could do anything he wanted."

He extols the sweet destructive powers of the back row of McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Reed – and then he gives the floor to Kaino, who at 28 and with 45 caps says he is ready to reach out for his great ambition after accepting the advice of the All Black Jerry Collins that he should be more a mongrel, more an attack dog.

Henry is almost garrulous now, swigging a take-away coffee, and, as a final, avuncular touch, confirming the centurion Muliaina as a fully paid up member of the 'All Blacks Leadership Group.' Slade?

"He is doing well, beginning to enjoy the environment," the coach says.

With such men, how can New Zealand fail? But then you walk outside and see all the TV trucks. You see Colin Slade standing alone, in reality for at least another 36 hours and, who knows, maybe for the rest of his rugby life.