Carter opens up breathtaking glimpse of rugby transported to another dimension

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The Independent Online

When it happens you forget about certain trials of the spirit, which on this ill-conceived and catastrophically supervised Lions tour amount to quite a number.

You kick into touch the malign and preposterous manipulations of an Alastair Campbell, the political spin doctor who has been so heavily in charge of the image of a Lions tradition that in the past has rarely failed to warm the heart. You even push away the anger - and the sadness - that is inevitable when a man of great achievement like the World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward fails so utterly to find the best of himself, as he has almost from the moment his Lions set foot here six weeks ago.

No, there is no place for any of that when a Daniel Carter, a boy from the farm country of South Island, reaches out and finds in one critical match everything he has promised in a brief, tantalising career.

What you have, quite simply, is a journey into the heart of the best of sport. You saw it in the young Ali, the young Pele, the young Lara. You saw a thoroughbred of dazzling lines and it is not the least sadness for a collection of superb Lions supporters that, at a time when they will have so little to cheer, they will be denied a parting glimpse of him in the third and now meaningless Test in Auckland on Saturday.

Carter has a "bump on his shoulder". For the Lions, it is at least some reassuring evidence of common mortality in the young man who clinically plundered the last of their hopes.

Carter, 23, came of age in his 33-point dissection of the Lions in the second Test and, extraordinary though it may sound, perhaps so did All Black rugby.

Maybe it found on a blowy night in the "Caketin" Stadium, a lost chord, a last dimension. Certainly no one here seriously doubts that Carter has already made his claim as the best out-half in the history of New Zealand rugby.

When you think of what the All Blacks mean to the game, when you measure all of their glory, you have to be quite careful in defining the point. The key is that, for the moment at least, there is a vital restriction on the case made on behalf of Carter.

No one is saying any more, for the moment at least, that Carter is the best out-half the All Blacks have had. This is not anything like saying that he has the ability to be better than, for example, any out-half, produced by the Welsh. To utter even a breath of such a suggestion you have to draw in the careers of Barry John and Phil Bennett and Cliff Morgan, a small division of challengers. Amazing though Carter was here on Saturday, it is maybe a little too soon for that.

New Zealand have bred forwards to make any blood run cold. They produced the ultimate lock, Colin "Pine Tree" Meads, and a No 8 of legendary facility, Zinzan Brooke. But not so many great, even notable out-halves.

In relatively recent memory, Grant Fox was a formidable points machine, a kicker of Wilkinsonesque reliability and dimension. Earl Kirton was an accomplished pragmatist with a famous zest for life. Carlos Spencer offered unprecedented, for an All Black half-back, imagination. Andrew Mehrtens, like Carter a graduate of the Christchurch High School for boys, was probably the most rounded before Carter took the field here.

When this happened the rugby of New Zealand and the world had a new point of focus.

It was a poignant time to make the comparison, as the English hero was led from the field with another disturbing injury, but here was the vindication of those who had been saying Carter was Jonny Wilkinson-plus. Plus what exactly? Plus silky hands and a razor-sharp feel for the flow of a game. Plus skill that empowered him to score one of the most beautifully conceived and executed tries anyone in the Caketin could remember; the vision to see beyond Josh Lewsey to the line, the perfectly weighted and directed grubber kick, and the easy strides to the touchdown.

Here Carter, from Southbridge, population 920-odd souls, was making his own margins, creating his own area of possibilities.

Later Carter spoke quietly, at times a little uncomfortably, in the blaze of the television lights. He said that, yes, he was pleased with his performance and the team's; yes, it was true he was maybe part of an attempt to make a new culture of New Zealand rugby, a game of pace and skill but one vitally imbued with the required power to counter, and perhaps make redundant, the old threat of northern hemisphere set-piece strength on which Woodward built the foundation of his World Cup win.

There was no trumpeting by Carter, however, no more than there was from his coach Graham Henry, who having set the Welsh along the road of self-rediscovery which led to this year's Six Nations triumph, is now mixing old values and a new concept of running, power-laden rugby on behalf of his homeland.

Henry did allow that he had probably never seen a better display than Carter's, nothing so complete, so intuitive, but then these were early days in the career of the prodigy and the redefining of the All Blacks.

Early days maybe, but also ones of profound impact. No man-jack in the Lions squad will leave here unaware that whatever the faults of preparation and selection, however great the failure to pursue the old ideal of a fusing of spirit and talent in the cities and the backroads of this rugby- obsessed land, a new force and depth of rugby was encountered.

Carter, inevitably, is at the heart of it. While Wilkinson, who typically signalled his respect for his counterpart's performance as he left the field distressed once more by the numbness that comes to him after a series of heavy hits, represented the traditional strength of English rugby, superb tactical and place and drop-kicking in support of an iron-clad pack, Carter is something more.

Only time will tell if he is also something less when the pressure is at its height, as it was when Wilkinson delivered World Cup victory in Sydney just 20 months ago, but for the moment we have to suspect that his nerve and his heart are as strong as his talent.

It means that a new name has to be entered into the lexicon of great rugby players and world sportsmen. Carter has already proved himself both a classic and an original. He has the timeless quality of pace, touch and a vision which means that he can see beyond the promptings of the coaches. He can make his own arena, set his own parameters.

Sadly, it is not possible to speak in such terms of an emerging young Lion; indeed the ultimate blow was the loss of the captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who came here rated arguably the world's best player and will leave - in New Zealand eyes at least - with no greater status than that of a central figure in a controversy which for many experienced former All Black and Lions' players has betrayed some of the game's oldest values.

One of those values says that while rugby is an inherently dangerous game that cannot tolerate deliberate attempts to injure, you should be very sure of your ground if you make such a charge against someone like the All Black captain Tana Umaga, a player of ferocious but previously impeccable reputation.

Outside of the official Lions camp, there has not been one claim that Umaga and his team-mate Keven Mealamu deliberately "speared" O'Driscoll. Indeed, the charge brought a cold fury to the All Black camp, and some will always believe it inspired a performance from the New Zealand captain that would have been utterly overwhelming as a statement of righteous indignation if it had not been for the virtuosity of Daniel Carter.

In this way the prodigy from the farmlands carried us beyond spin-doctoring and hype. He made us marvel at the game he played. At this time, in this place, it was the most precious of gifts.