Call it the new golden age. There have been times in the history of the union code when the quality of player in a single position has reinvigorated the game, giving it a frisson, a surge of electricity, a fresh and exhilarating sense of the possibilities contained in an 80-minute helping of international rugby. The scrum-halves - Chris Laidlaw, Sid Going, Ken Catchpole, the great Gareth Edwards - redefined the sport in the 1960s; the back-rowers - Michael Jones and Buck Shelford, Abdel Benazzi and Willie Ofahengaue - did something similar in the late 1980s.
Now, it is the turn of the glory boys at No 10. Come the 2007 World Cup in France, the big questions are likely to be answered by one of the following outside-halves: Jonny Wilkinson of England, who has already come up with a solution or two on the issue of the Webb Ellis Trophy; Matt Giteau of Australia, who is quickly establishing himself as a worthy successor to the wonderful Stephen Larkham; and the extraordinary Frédéric Michalak of Les Bleus, whose gifts, almost offensively abundant, confirm that there is nothing fair and balanced about divine intervention.
Oh yes, there is another challenger for the title of the world's best - a genuine fancy-Dan who goes by the name of ... well, Dan, as it happens. Daniel Carter was first capped by New Zealand at 21 against Wales in Hamilton two years ago - he introduced himself by contributing a try, six conversions and a penalty to a fairly convincing 55-3 victory - and has been jogging along at 14 points a game ever since. He knows what it is to lose a Test match, but as it has happened only once, it cannot be described as an everyday experience.
Carter was identified as a midfielder of unusual talents almost from the cradle. Has he taken anything from his study of Wilkinson, who raised the outside-half's bar to a stratospheric degree in goal-kicking and defensive application? "Not really," Carter replied. "We're both No 10s, and we're both left-footers. That's about it, I reckon."
Indeed, the similarities are scarce. Both are marksmen of the highest calibre - like Wilkinson, the New Zealander boasts a strike rate of 80 per cent plus - but Carter is infinitely more relaxed. He must be as assiduous as the next world-class player in terms of preparation, for no one gets to be as good as this without shedding some sweat. However, the word "obsessive" cannot be applied to him in the way it is to Wilkinson. Indeed, many in New Zealand believe Carter will turn out to be better than either Andrew Mehrtens or Carlos Spencer precisely because of his temperament.
When pressed on his ambitions over the coming three weekends, his eyes reveal the splinter of ice that lies buried in his competitive soul.
"I guess we're expected to win, and win playing the kind of rugby people are accustomed to seeing from us," he said. "But speaking personally, I don't care how we win, just so long as we do."Reuse content