Dan Carter: 'No way do I expect to automatically get selected for the All Blacks'

This week All Black star Daniel Carter returns to New Zealand after his injury-marred sabbatical in France. This is the first of a two-part exclusive series where Carter talks about his life in Perpignan.

Beside the glittering Mediterranean, a jewel is ready to sparkle again.

He comes to meet me in the clothes expected in this part of the world: black short sleeved T-shirt, white baggy shorts and dark sunglasses, a necessary antidote to the glare of the sea.

As we sit talking over lunch on the coast of southeast France, the Pyrenees a hazy outline in the heat of the day, Dan Carter looks and sounds in superb shape. Ever since he arrived in this part of France close by the Spanish border, life has taken some extraordinary twists and turns for the world's No 1 rugby player.

Carter's seven-month French sojourn has been a unique experience for the New Zealander. A life changing experience? Very possibly.

"It has really opened my eyes on living in a different part of the world. Further down the track, I could see myself back living somewhere in Europe. I can even see myself spending a lot more time here, perhaps finishing my career. I have so enjoyed it."

So on Tuesday, Carter will board a flight for Auckland, having taken one last wistful look behind him at the town and region of France for which he has clearly fallen. Dragged kicking and screaming up the steps of the aircraft, I tease him?

He smiles, a relaxed expression that tells you everything about how chilled New Zealand's star player is right now after 17 weeks out of the game.

"No, not at all," he says. "I am ready to go home, keen to get back now and very much looking forward to more challenges ahead of me. New Zealand is a great place to be, I never need reminding of that.

"I have goals I want to meet. Playing back at my best for the November tests is one of them but I know I will have to prove myself at Air New Zealand Cup level first. No way do I expect to automatically get selected for the All Blacks."

In Perpignan, he has had virtually an enforced halftime break in his career. The serious Achilles injury he suffered after only five games for the French club meant he would play no more rugby for at least six months. It offered him an opportunity to analyse himself and his life, to ponder his past achievements and future goals. Rarely, in these times of professional rugby, does any top class player get the opportunity of so long a break. Carter has used it wisely.

He has travelled extensively all over Europe. There have been weekend trips to Paris, plus a few days in places like Monaco, Milan (watching soccer at the famous San Siro stadium), Dublin, Amsterdam and Stockholm. "I wanted to go somewhere completely different and I loved it. Most of these places you can never experience while you are playing rugby".

He's made nine visits to Barcelona, often to the Nou Camp where he has met some of the stars of the Barca soccer team.

"I've become a real Barcelona fan. It is an amazing city with its galleries and museums. I can just relax there because they don't know much about rugby."

He's visited museums and art galleries, eaten at restaurants, luxurious and simple. He's lapped up the history, walked around towns hundreds of years old or just sat on what he calls "the amazing beaches" barely a 40-minute drive from his home, Canet-Plage, on the coast outside Perpignan. Then there have been the regular escapes to a small fishing village just down the coast, in the lee of the mountains. Rugby has been far from the focus of his mind, his life. "I have made the most of this opportunity. I have looked back and reflected on my career," he says.

"People say I have had a good career but you don't think about it. I have had a great time as a professional rugby player, being able to play the game I love and travel. But to experience another life as I have done in the middle of my career has been fantastic.

"I take life seriously but I am quite a relaxed guy down here in the south of France and it's easy to become that way. I have been shopping, sight-seeing, things that help make you relax.

"Punctuality has gone out of the door. I know it will be something I'll have to get back to but I will have time to adjust when I get home.

"Having this freedom has been good for me, and for my sponsors, adidas. I went to Milan to help promote the match New Zealand will play there against Italy in November.

"I have been playing seven years of very intense, full-on rugby. But when I got injured, I realised it was an opportunity to take stock, do something different. The main reason I stayed in France was that I already enjoyed the lifestyle of living in Europe. And I've had a great time."

His decision to stay undoubtedly endeared him to the club and his teammates. Many players would have packed up and rushed home, their money guaranteed. Carter demonstrated he is a different person by the act of staying and helping to contribute in some small ways.

For him to be inactive for the remainder of his contract with the French club after just five games, was a scenario none could have envisaged when he arrived last December, following the All Blacks' Northern Hemisphere tour. A tackle in the 79th minute of the game against Stade Francais in Paris - a club match played before 80,000 people at the Stade de France - ripped his Achilles. His French sojourn, from a playing point of view at least, was over.

"I felt like I had let the club down," he admits, frankly. "Part of the reason I was enjoying being here was I didn't find pressure from people generally. The Perpignan supporters are very passionate and there is still pressure on you to perform, with a lot of expectations. But I found that after the match or away from the stadium, I could completely switch off. I couldn't read French newspapers so I found I was able to get away completely from all the hype.

"I haven't really done any interviews either so I got away from the media too. I'll be very happy to get back into all this when I get home and start playing but it was wonderful to be able to get away from it all for some months."

Carter has known one seriously low moment during his time in Perpignan. When the impact of how serious his injury was really hit him mentally, he admits he struggled to take it all in and adapt.

"When the injury happened, I heard this rifle shot and looked behind me to try and see who had been the sniper in the crowd. But I felt this really sharp pain in my leg as though I'd been kicked badly.

"The medics came on to the field and I quickly realised I couldn't push down on to my ankle at all. I had the operation and the surgeon said it was neat and quick, 28 minutes."

But it was after that, the problems began. Carter's girlfriend had arranged to fly home after the game in Paris and the separation was tough. She departed for the other side of the world, he to a hospital in Lyon for an operation that might determine whether he ever played again. Achilles injuries are not to be trifled with.

"The first two weeks were really tough," he now admits.

When he was transported back to Perpignan, he lay on the sofa at his home for a fortnight, unable to move and, briefly, unable to embrace the positives which are normally such a strong part of his make-up.

But Carter then remembered something that had been at the core of his original decision to come to Perpignan. He'd also had the opportunity to join Toulon, further east along the Mediterranean coast, where fellow New Zealanders Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins were playing. By far the logical, easiest choice would have been to go there, where some familiar voices would soften the hardships endured by some foreigners within the vicinity of the local tongue.

Carter deliberately chose Perpignan for that reason. "I did it because I didn't want to be surrounded by other New Zealanders. I wanted to test myself, to go somewhere out of my comfort zone, somewhere I wouldn't be able to talk English all the time and relax with Kiwis.

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to leave New Zealand for a while, to try another lifestyle. I wanted to make new friends and really challenge myself. I felt the only way to do that properly would be to go somewhere there weren't All Blacks.

"I am normally a quiet, shy type of person who takes the easy route. But this was a good move for me, the right decision to come here."

That spell of depression lasted no more than two weeks. Carter then began to put his mind and body back together. Helped by the All Blacks' physiotherapist who flew to France to check his re-hab work and assist, he started on the road back, physically and mentally.

"I began to look at life much more positively again. Once I could move again, I turned up to club training. I couldn't participate but I could give some advice to individuals, here and there. We'd talk about the opposition and I'd try to contribute. I still felt part of the team by doing that and it was important.

"The team have been great to me. They made me feel at home immediately, even though I was the centre of their jokes because I couldn't speak the language. I have made some great friendships here which is the number one thing I love about rugby. The friendships you make in this game last a lifetime and I made those friendships here by staying."

The warmth of strangers did not stop at the gates of Perpignan's Aime Giral stadium. At our meeting at the smart Les Flaments Roses hotel and restaurant just along the beach from his apartment the chef welcomed him like a long lost friend. He regularly sees him and they discuss a) the state of Perpignan's rugby team b) the chances of the All Blacks winning the next World Cup c) France's chances in that competition or d) which fish is particularly fresh and tasty that day.

The answer? Obvious, isn't it. Which fish to eat ...

Once he began to look closely enough, the positives of his situation overwhelmed him, injury or not. His parents came to stay three weeks, his girlfriend returned, other friends from New Zealand spent a month based at his home.

He has worked assiduously on his rehab programme and is already doing light running. But, unable to play rugby, Carter peered through the hitherto barred doors into another world and, liking what he saw, walked confidently through them. The experience, he believes, has left him a more mature, more rounded and less shy person.

"I can't see myself ever getting stale now when I get home," he says.

"You always want to play rugby, so in a sense it's been pretty frustrating. And part of me does feel that I have let Perpignan down. But in another way, I feel this was almost a blessing in disguise. It gave me the time to think about my life and my rugby."

How does he reflect on New Zealand rugby?

"There is quite a mystique about New Zealand rugby. The people in France want to know what we do differently, why we are different. They all admire rugby in New Zealand; they all think it is the best. They strive to get to that level.

"There is no doubt there is still something special about rugby there and I am thankful I can be a part of it. For a country that is so small and not many people have heard very much about, they seem to produce this rugby dream, a country that always seems to be at the top of its game [perhaps World Cups excepted].

"How can such a small country produce a team like this for so many years? Well, there is real history behind the All Black jersey. When you become an All Black, you look at the jersey, you think of the traditions and the people that have gone before you ... the people you looked up to when you were young.

"I think what it comes down to, is the desire to leave a legacy on the jersey which means you have to perform in every game. No game is just another game in that jersey. It doesn't matter who you are playing, it is always very special because you know it is going to be such a short time in your career. You have to make the most of that opportunity."

He suspects the skills which perhaps elevate New Zealanders to a level a little beyond almost all other rugby nations of the world are honed in the formative years.

he recalls his own time, playing every day with his pals in the back yard of his home. "That is where I built my skill set, throwing the ball around and trying to score as many tries as we could."

We come to the key question. At 27, after his enchanting European experience, might not New Zealand be too small a stage for Dan Carter to inhabit in the years to come?

He considers the question carefully, while studying a particularly delicious plate of fresh scallops which has just been placed in front of him...

Come back tomorrow for the second part of this exclusive interview...

This story was sourced from The New Zealand Herald.

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