Dan Carter: 'Now I'm the No 1 All Blacks fan'

After his Achilles injury, Dan Carter is back playing club rugby. As his beloved New Zealand take on South Africa without him today, he talks Peter Bills through the agony of watching the action at home on TV
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The Independent Online

Dan Carter insists there is no harder challenge than playing the Springboks in South Africa. Coming from a player of his world-class calibre, that is a measure of the task facing the All Blacks in Bloemfontein today.

Carter will be sitting at home in Christchurch and watching the game in his new role. "I have turned into the All Blacks' No 1 supporter" he grins. "I get nervous, which is a weird feeling, because there is nothing I can do sitting in front of the TV.

"I just get nervous for the boys because I know all the hard work they will have put in during the week. And I also know it can go either way for them on the field. It will be another frustrating weekend for me, having to sit back and watch."

For both Carter and the All Blacks, it could be a momentous weekend. He will return to the game with a match for his club, Southbridge, where he grew up playing age-grade rugby. It will be his first outing since he damaged his Achilles on duty for the French club Perpignan, in Paris, on 30 January. But Vodacom Park is undoubtedly where he would rather be. "I would always rather be in amongst them playing there."

Just what is it about playing in South Africa? New Zealand first went there in 1928 but didn't win a Test series until 1996, 68 years later. Since then, they have won eight of the 13 games played in the Republic, which suggests the mystique is no more. But Carter isn't so sure.

"There is still no harder challenge than playing the South Africans in South Africa. It provides a completely different challenge because the crowds are a big factor. They are so hostile, vocal and passionate about their team and the game. Even just going to the match and the week leading into it is huge. You are told constantly by South Africans you will lose. That can inspire some people or make it harder for other guys.

"South Africa is such a physical and strong side and when the crowd gets behind them, they seem to grow another leg. So going there is a really tough challenge. Yet it is something that brings the best out of the All Blacks because it is so tough. We love playing under those pressures and have had some good wins."

None more so than last year at Cape Town when the All Blacks, inspired by their captain Richie McCaw, withstood a battering to cling to a precarious 3-0 lead for an hour before breaking out to win 19-0. It remains one of the finest defensive performances seen for years in Test rugby and McCaw's performance made him the player of the year in most people's eyes.

What was that game like and what of McCaw's superlative display that day? Carter says: "I remember that game pretty fondly. We were under the heat but still had this really strong belief we could break out in the end and do it.

"Credit to the guys, that was what happened in the last 20 minutes. It was awesome both to get the win and keep them try-less. We put a huge emphasis on our defence for that game and it really paid off. It was one of the best defensive performances I had ever been involved in."

And McCaw? "The same as usual," said his Crusaders team-mate. "He leads by his own actions rather than words. Watching your captain play like that is so inspirational."

Carter isn't sure on the altitude issue. At 1,395 metres above sea level, Bloemfontein is not quite as high up as Ellis Park in Johannesburg, but isn't it still a factor for visiting sides?

He suspects the exertions from New Zealand's match last Saturday against Australia might be more relevant. "You have to take into context the intensity of that game. The guys put their bodies on the line and to be travelling only 12 hours after that doesn't help your recovery. It is not ideal for the team to be travelling and playing just a week after a hard Test match."

An unfair disadvantage? Typically for a guy who just accepts adversity and gets on with life, Carter shrugs. "I believe it comes down to your mental attitude. Sure, the journey makes it tough but it is one of those things. South Africa have had to do it enough times, so you have to overcome it and prepare the best you possibly can in those circumstances.

"But I have been on the receiving end of a South African side going up a gear in the last 20 minutes. When you have nothing left in the tank there isn't a lot you can do about it, which is when the use of your reserves is so crucial. But the guys know what to expect and you just have to dig deep."

To the outsider, it would seem logical for the All Blacks to focus not on this weekend's game but the one next Saturday at sea level in Durban. Win one of the two and New Zealand could be in line for a fifth successive Tri-Nations title. But Carter doesn't see it quite like that.

"We will be targeting this one, then worrying about the next Test after that. Anything is possible. Realistically, the second game could be easier. We won't have to worry about travelling and will have had another week together. The win over Australia was huge for us; there is nothing worse than travelling after a loss. But we have to continue to improve if we are going to be properly involved."

According to Carter, the All Blacks should revel in the largely unknown phenomenon for New Zealand Test rugby players: an afternoon kick-off. "In the last month, they have played only night Test matches where it was cold and the ball was slippery. The guys will be looking forward to playing with a dry ball. That may mean they are able to play more open rugby and score tries. That is the style I think everyone wants to see."

Carter's message and his return to the game are reassuring for New Zealanders, but an early warning for Springbok and Australian fans regarding the second half of the Tri-Nations. "I feel good, I feel 100 per cent and now it is a matter of getting some contact. I have been running a lot and have got my speed back. It took a while but now I have no problems. There is nothing holding me back."

Carter catalogue: Highs and lows

New Zealand international Dan Carter's career has been one of highs...

First world Cup call-up

Included in New Zealand's 2003 World Cup squad, having scored 20 points on debut v Wales that year.

New Zealand's lion tamer

Instrumental in All Blacks' series whitewash of the Lions in 2005, scoring 33 points in second Test, a Kiwi record.

Top of the world

Named 2005 IRB Player of the Year.

...and lows

Australian agony

Watches from the sidelines as New Zealand are beaten 22-10 by Australia in the 2003 World Cup semi-final in Sydney.

More World Cup pain

20-18 defeat to France in 2007 World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff.

Injury nightmare

Ruptures Achilles playing for Perpignan in January this year.