Dan Carter: 'South Africa is in a great position at the moment with their rugby'

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

He's about to swap the delights of a French summer resort for cold, wet Christchurch and the arduous New Zealand winter.

But as he prepares to fly home from his seven-month French sojourn tomorrow, Dan Carter makes an unequivocal statement about a possible future conflict of emotions between his homeland and a new life in Europe.

"I would say I have a feel for the two of them now. New Zealand can be difficult at times, but the rewards are so much better. Playing for your country and winning competitions still give special pleasures.

"Because of the injury, I now want to play again. It's been good here and I have had a great time but I am ready to return to my Kiwi lifestyle. I'm really hungry to play again.

"There are still major goals I want to achieve. Playing for the All Blacks is still the most important thing for me. There is no way I will turn my back on that. And I think I will always end up in New Zealand eventually. However, having said that, I can definitely see myself spending more time in the future in Europe."

Focusing on the present has always been Carter's mantra, not identifying some mythical event years down the road. It is too draining to look too far ahead, he says.

Yet he does concede that, after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he will sit back and analyse afresh his motives and ambitions. Whether they might direct him back to Perpignan, to another part of Europe or to remain in New Zealand, he cannot tell.

"I can't promise to go anywhere, but after the World Cup I want to look at what life I would take. If I come back to France, Perpignan would definitely be ahead of any other teams who might consider offering me something ... Before this trip, I had never been away from New Zealand for longer than five weeks.

"I like the really relaxed lifestyle and the good weather I have had here in the south of France. But the secret of this place is probably its access to places like Barcelona and Paris. I wouldn't want to live in a big city, but it's great to visit for a week."

Yet returning to New Zealand is far from a chore for Carter. After all, he is going home, always a nice experience. And he hopes his return and gradually improving fitness will put him closer to a possible recall to the All Blacks side at some stage in the near future.

Targets? He refuses to set himself any. At one time, he hoped he would have played enough Air New Zealand Cup rugby to have put him in the reckoning for a test place in the home Tri-Nations matches. But he suspects the reality may be the end-of-year tour to the Northern Hemisphere.

Isn't that a disappointment? His reply surprises me. In 2005, he tells me, the All Black squad, management and players, sat down and worked out a priority list for that year's rugby. The Lions were visiting for the first time since 1993, but the Tri-Nations had been snatched the previous year by South Africa. Winning that, I suggested, must surely have been the chief ambition.

Not so. The first objective, it was decided, would be the Lions test series. The second was to be the end-of-year tour and the third focus was the Tri-Nations. A Grand Slam tour to the Northern Hemisphere more important than the Tri-Nations?

Carter explained: "To a lot of people, a Grand Slam tour to the Northern Hemisphere is the one. It goes to show the way we play and how much it means to us. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is some really good, exciting rugby. I love being part of that. But in terms of the competitions there is not much history.

"Look at the Six Nations in Europe compared to the Super 14 andTri-Nations. The fans love thattradition and it is a big difference there."

Not even Daniel Carter, quiet, self-effacing and modest, attempts to minimise the pleasure he took from the All Blacks' comprehensive defeat of the Lions in 2005. It was, he said, something he would remember for a long time.

"The success rate of the Lions is not that great. But the amount of history behind them and the way their fans get in behind the team makes them special.

"The Southern Hemisphere teams play them so little we're lucky if we meet them once in our careers. It really goes without saying you want to make the most of those opportunities, that once-in-a-lifetime chance."

He forecasts that the South Africans will be the same this month. "As soon as they won the World Cup, their focus was the Lions, not the Tri-Nations. And from the Lions' point of view, it is very tough to put a team together. That comes down to good management and coaching plus the players that are leaders standing up.

"I think South Africa is in a great position at the moment with their rugby. Winning the World Cup was huge for them but now they have also won the Super 14 in two of the last three years. Then the South African Sevens team won their world series.

"There may seem to be a lot of political problems in their rugby at the moment, but the teams and players are really pulling through. They have some real athletes in their country who are very rugby orientated. And the people love the game. They're doing a great job there at the moment."

Springboks and Bulls backrower Pierre Spies is a player Carter singles out for special mention. He calls him "a monster", so fast and fit. His running off the back of the scrums and lineouts will represent a huge threat to the Lions, he says.

"When you see him coming at you, there isn't much doubt in your mind about the challenge you're confronting" smiles Carter. "He is a great player and probably still has his best years ahead of him."

It is for such reasons that Carter insists the Lions will find their test series so tough. "The Springboks will want to play well, especially after all the hype and build-up to the series. I think it'll be pretty tough for the Lions to win any tests there, especially with two of the three at altitude."

The state of world rugby overall? He believes it is pretty healthy. The crowds drawn to the game in the Northern Hemisphere continue to delight and astonish in equal measure. Rugby authorities in countries such as New Zealand and Australia might wish they had such backing, but then, population numbers in Europe are a significant part of that. He remains convinced that New Zealand's love of the game remains high, the key factor.

What of France and the French? A perfectly justified frown creases his brow. "There is a lot of talent within the clubs, and the tradition and history is with the clubs. The players want to win each game for their club and I'm sure they're proud when it comes to representing their country.

"But it seems they are so inconsistent, they're so unpredictable. I thought they showed what they are capable of when they beat Wales in the Six Nations but then they changed the team and lost heavily to England. I can't put my finger on why they can't play like they did against Wales in every match. If they did that in every game they would be so dangerous."

Doubtless, Carter won't be the only fascinated observer of the Lions test series, which starts on June 20. All Blacks coach Graham Henry will have other priorities that day - the first test against France for starters - but he might find time to search out the score and at least some of the action from a team he himself coached in 2001 in Australia.

The surprise of Henry's reappointment as All Blacks coach after the 2007 World Cup might have antagonised some, but Carter concedes now he was an intrigued bystander as the issue unfolded.

By then, he'd long since learned the ways of Henry, albeit only after a tough introduction.

"When I first got into the All Blacks, Graham was quite an intimidating guy. But once I got to know him, I realised what a great bloke he is.

"It [the choice between coaches] was extremely tough from my point of view because I knew that they were both great coaches. You've got to remember, I had worked with them both for years, Robbie [Deans] at the Crusaders, Graham with the All Blacks.

"Graham's coaching team of Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith makes him especially strong. Against that, you had Robbie, one of the best coaches I have ever had.

"I knew it was a win-win situation for New Zealand because there would be a great coach either way. But I also knew we would lose a great coach whoever lost. In the end of course it was Robbie and he was a big loss. But he had to coach at international level, it was his time."

Was the decision correct? Carter thinks so. "I think their reasoning behind reappointing Graham was fair. Continually changing the national coach when a World Cup was lost wasn't changing anything. They used the Clive Woodward example of England showing faith in their coach despite failing at the 1999 World Cup. Four years later that loyalty paid off."

Will the same happen to New Zealand in 2011? Carter smiled. "That's the dream, isn't it? I've certainly had a great career but that would top it off, winning the World Cup.

"All you can say is that it's a great structure within the All Black management at the moment. They showed that by the season we had last year. We lost a lot of experienced players but they helped breed these young guys and turn them into an international team and a successful one at that."

The World Cup failures ? He shrugs. They give you the inspiration and motivation to be a better player, he reckons. "You have got to learn from those things and, after all, that is the beauty of sport. You have to grow as a person and as a player. You can't have a career where you win every game."

That's true enough. But what a career Dan Carter has had. The statistics you can pore over yourself, they're well enough known. But the essence of this young man who rose to become arguably the No 1 rugby player in the world will not be found in tries scored, goals kicked or trophies collected, like a hibernating squirrel storing away nuts for the winter.

Rather, it is in the person he is, the kind of human being he has been and the person who represented a great game with dignity, humility and courtesy to others. In other words, Carter's values epitomise those of his sport and you cannot aspire to greater personal heights than that.

His philosophy always was and remains, simple. "I love this game and I love this life.

"Therefore, I will play as long as I can. It is the game I love and that pleasure has never diminished. Your dream as a youngster is to become an All Black. When you do that, you think: 'What next?' Now, my dream is being an All Black great.

But to do that you have to spend a lot of time in the jersey and play a lot of games.

"You always have to be the best. That gives me the motivation to work even harder, to keep improving my game, never to be complacent and always to be that little bit better. I always want to have that drive and ambition because you wouldn't last very long if you just played for the sake of playing. If that were the case, you would do it in a half-hearted way and wouldn't get the enjoyment out of it that I do now.

"That is the difference between being a great and just playing a couple of matches."