As Carter goes from superstar to spectator, a nation holds its breath
'Tragic' groin injury to perfect No10 leaves Slade with giant shoes to fill. Meanwhile, the French fall apart. Tom Bell witnesses a whirlwind weekend in Wellington
Monday 03 October 2011
Friday 7.30am, InterContinental hotel, Wellington
"Good morning Mr Henry," murmur reporters like schoolchildren in reply to Graham Henry, the All Blacks head coach and one-time teacher who has a headmasterly hold over a press pack he likes to keep where he wants them. A wake-up call at the crack of dawn appeals to the early-rising Henry, much less so to his audience, one of whom – a television reporter – attends in a white towelling robe to make a point. "You've got some inspiration there, boys," notes a tired-looking hooker Andrew Hore after fielding tired-sounding queries such as "Do you like scrummaging?" Sonny Bill Williams enters the room singing Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us" but is not quite up to engaging in conversation having been shaken from his slumber moments earlier by Conrad Smith, his room-mate. Henry, though, is alert and revelling in the World Cup adventure, and surprisingly open about his insecurities as he approaches (hopefully) four Tests to go. "I didn't think I'd be reappointed in 2007," he admits – not something that would have come from the mouth of the more brash 2005 Henry. This Henry is relaxed and ready for what's next. "There's going to be a bit of pressure, some tension," he says. "We're trying to make sure guys who need football get game time." He adds: "You don't know who's going to get injured."
9.30am Amora hotel
Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, and his captain Thierry Dusautoir face the press before their meeting with Tonga. They are cross-examined as if arrested on suspicion of murder, which in the eyes of a rabid French press pack would be less grave than the crimes committed against French rugby. Lièvremont shrinks before our eyes, looking guilty as charged. There are sighs and shrugs from the coach as he responds to the same old complaints from journalists. Dusautoir visibly cringes beside him, occasionally laughing nervously at his coach's more combative ripostes. Finally, they are freed and the rugby police skulk off to grumble some more.
12.15pm Wellington Regional Stadium (the Cake Tin)
Richie McCaw has withdrawn injured from the Canada match; Dan Carter will lead the side. At the end of training, he hits a risible drop-goal attempt with his "wrong" right foot and then refuses to leave the training paddock until he has righted the wrong. Seven of eight attempts are missed before he gives in and bangs over a few with his left.
Saturday 7.35pm Cake Tin
Tonga players are celebrating well before the final whistle, and France players are deep in conversation. They want a losing bonus point to qualify and are doing their sums. Opting not to kick for goal, they go on to snatch a try in the last play of the match. Lièvremont gets a tongue-lashing from the first questioner at the press conference, who is unsure whether the decision eliminates France, prompting a cringeworthy mathematical argument with Lièvremont, who is not entirely sure of his footing either. The brazen questioning continues from furious French hacks, who imply Lièvremont should be ashamed. He is, and wears a rabbit-in-headlights look. You would not hear these questions being put to Henry or Martin Johnson, for fear of reprisal. Beads of sweat dot Lièvremont's brow, resigned half-smiles creep across his face; he's on the rack, he knows it and they know it. There's nothing he can do but pray for a miracle.
An hour later there will be enthusiastic cheers and clapping for each Scotland score against England by Kiwi and French journalists watching in the press room. Finally a little unity. Meanwhile, though, Carter has strained a groin in training. And the pictures do not look good.
A text message summons media to the InterContinental.
Grave faces all round as Henry confirms the worst fears: Carter is out. And from the body language, the contingency plan is not at all watertight. "Colin Slade is the number two after Daniel," Henry says. "He hasn't played a lot of footy, but he's got a lot of ability. Decisions about the future will look after themselves. We've got plenty of time to do that." For plenty of time, read a couple of weeks. For the second time in two days, Henry uses the phrase "there's a lot of intellectual property here". And, four times: "It's a tragedy."
10.20 Amora hotel
Lièvremont is at it again, this time blaming players' agents and everybody but himself for the dismal displays. It's remarkable to see a coach at this level floundering like this, volunteering so many destructive thoughts so readily. The French reporters are going for the jugular and it is striking that Lièvremont has not formulated an approach to his media duties. There is the stern schoolmaster Henry, the no-nonsense enforcer in Johnson, Warren Gatland's straight-talking hooker, Robbie Deans's mix of the academic and the simple, and the diverting madness of Peter de Villiers. No consistent tone emanates from Lièvremont.
A dishevelled fellow is wandering around the lobby, barefoot, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, seemingly in pyjamas. His shirt bears an apt No10 and "Tendulkar". It is this afternoon's All Blacks stand-in, stand-in skipper, Andrew Hore.
3.31pm Cake Tin
Slade, the man who must become Dan Carter with a nation looking on fearing he cannot, has had a kick charged down in the first minute, leading to a penalty that gives Canada the lead. Within minutes he fluffs another punt and has a pass intercepted for what might have been a try, and he goes on to kick just three of his eight first-half attempts at goal. The chatter ripples around the arena that Piri Weepu, the local boy, would make a better Carter. There must be a "wee bit of tension" in the coaches' box.
5.15pm press conference room, Cake Tin
Henry projects an almost forced optimism as he proclaims the deputy 10s a success. Few are convinced. Weepu can kick the goals, Henry says later – but won't play 80 minutes, being a scrum half. Who, then, is the man he wants at the tee in a semi-final kicking duel with, say, South Africa's Morne Steyn? As for the man with the biggest shoes to fill, Slade says: "It's been an emotional 24 hours. Maybe I was caught a little off-guard. Dan had texted to say he's there if I need him. But I can't try to be Dan Carter, I can only be myself." It is clear that, as France and New Zealand head for Auckland for the serious stuff, "a wee bit of pressure" has very much appeared. Henry puts it best as he departs: "It's been a hell of a day." You really do never know who is going to get injured.
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