Daniel Carter, by some distance the most complete outside-half in the sport, will be on the field when the southern hemisphere's elite Super 15 tournament breaks new ground by visiting Twickenham on Sunday. Watching him from the stand will be Graham Henry, and those sitting within earshot of the celebrated All Black coach can expect to hear the sound of fingernails being chewed into oblivion. New Zealand's chances of winning a first world title in almost a quarter of a century depend to a significant extent on the record-breaking Crusaders' goal-kicker staying in one piece.
"Who do we have as a back-up to Carter? I think you can say the jury is still out on that one," Henry admitted yesterday as he made the long journey to Europe – an unexpected journey, forced upon him by the earthquake that struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch last month and left the Crusaders homeless. "There's no one putting his hand up and saying 'pick me'. We're keeping an open mind, but we'll have to address the issue over the next two or three months."
The Crusaders, the most successful team in Super Rugby with seven titles in 15 years, have travelled without the other irreplaceable All Black – the captain Richie McCaw, who is recovering from a stress fracture of the foot. The great open-side flanker should be fit by the middle of April, happily for Henry, but even if the unthinkable happened and McCaw did himself another mischief before the World Cup, the coach would have half a dozen international-quality alternatives at his disposal. Carter is a different matter. High-class stand-offs are no more common in New Zealand than they are in Britain or France.
Might Nick Evans, understudy to Carter at the 2007 World Cup and an impressive performer in Premiership rugby since joining Harlequins after that tournament, make a late bid? Henry was far from convinced. "It's our policy not to pick people playing overseas, and Nick is an overseas player," he said. "If he came back to New Zealand he'd be considered, but there's no sign of that happening."
Until yesterday, there was no sign of Josh Lewsey, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, playing anything other than the odd charity game, having retired from professional rugby a couple of seasons ago. Suddenly, he is back in the thick of it with Wasps, the club with whom he won a clean sweep of titles at both European and domestic levels.
Lewsey has rejoined the Londoners on a short-term contract running to the end of the season. "We have a few knocks to players in the back-three positions and we need some cover," explained Leon Holden, who stepped in as director of rugby on a caretaker basis after the sacking of Tony Hanks last month. "Josh has kept himself in remarkably good shape and I don't think we could have done any better than bring someone like him back to the club."
Now 34, Lewsey's fitness was sharpened by his determined attempt to climb Mount Everest last spring – an effort that failed, but only narrowly. "If Wasps think I can contribute in any way, either on the field or around the dressing room on match days, I'm happy to do so," he said.
Meanwhile, London Irish will lose the powerful Samoan loose forward George Stowers to Ospreys at the end of the campaign. Stowers has signed a two-year deal with the Swansea-based side and follows the centre Seilala Mapusua and outside-half Ryan Lamb out of the Madejski Stadium. Mapusua is heading for Japan while Lamb will play for Northampton next term.