James Lawton: Slade stands as a lonely figure in nation mourning a missing genius - News & Comment - Rugby Union - The Independent

James Lawton: Slade stands as a lonely figure in nation mourning a missing genius

 

First dawn down by the water at Tanapuka and Colin Slade, the young, unheralded man who has to walk in the shoes of the world's most talented rugby player, might be forgiven if he falters for a moment, turns and runs.

Yet on day eight of what some here are categorising as ADC – After Daniel Carter – Slade keeps moving towards the harsh spotlight that awaits him yet again – and which some countrymen fear could at any moment burn him away.

It helps that he is flanked by two other All Blacks, Mils Muliaina and Kevin Mealamu, who between them have played 188 Tests. Also true is that the kid – if he was 10 years older than 23 coming on 24 he would still be a kid in the wake of the man he calls, without a hint of blasphemy or irony, simply DC – is a proven fighter.

He doesn't have the sharpness of Carter's mind, nor his smooth Red Bull acceleration. But, certainly, he knows how to fight. His track record since he left Christchurch Boys High School – Carter's alma mater – is all about scrapping to survive as a half-credible stand-in for the great man.

He has played in four positions – full-back, right wing, centre and fly-half, the last position being that in which he replaces Carter for a second World Cup game in tomorrow's quarter-final here against Argentina. He has also had his jaw broken twice, both times returning to the action in record time. Had he been a pro boxer, a decent licensing authority would likely have demanded a medical before he stepped back inside the ropes.

He is asked a question that has been formulated a 100 different ways but each times comes out as a same exhibit of national obsession.

Yesterday he again listened patiently, a bit like someone who has come to understand that if he wants something badly enough there are certain times he has to offer as sacrifice to those who might just be dissuaded from destroying his ambition.

Then he said: "I keep being told that I'm not Daniel Carter but I know that already – the most relaxing thing is when he talks to me, as he has been doing ever since he was injured, and I just listen to him saying something that I know to be true.

"He says that I'm playing with great players and that no one is expecting me to do anything more than what I'm capable of. I don't have to go and try and prove I'm DC. He's got it over to me. I guess it's a case of saying, 'yes, whatever DC says, it has to be true'."

You might think some kind of cultish devotion is being washed on to the rocks down here and some have already said that New Zealand has lost its head completely over the loss of the man who the nation had persuaded itself was the symbol of redemption after five successive failures in the World Cup. Some of this questioning has even arrived from as far away as England, which is at least some light relief for those locals who recall the commotion which down the years attached itself to the metatarsal malfunctions of such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.

The New Zealanders have been chastised for likening Carter's injury to the earthquakes which shattered Christchurch and the surrounding plains which nurtured the rugby of the fabled player – and the one now who would, however briefly, take the great challenge for himself.

It must be said the Kiwis carry this particular rebuke lightly; so much of their living has come from the land and they point out that they know the difference between a tragedy in sport and one that takes away the lives of their loved ones or the means to sustain them when the land that has yielded the grain and the grapes and the livestock profits for so many generations has turned bad. The problem is that as symbols of some kind of resurrection of the spirit go, Carter, with his mesmerising talent and perfect athletic dedication, was a runner this year for some kind of mythic status.

The coach Graham Henry, who was hailed as the Great Redeemer in the Welsh valleys when he came to put in the first building blocks of recovery, was especially brisk on the subject in the early morning light.

"People around here don't need lessons of what is a tragedy and what isn't but they know that in the context of sport that what's happened to Daniel Carter is tragic. He did so much to earn his place in the sports history of this country and because everyone knew this, and was so proud of it, it was a heavy attack on the national spirit.

"It's brought a lot of pressure on Colin Slade but I'm very pleased with how he is dealing with it. I think he's getting better. He's more comfortable in the group. He is obviously the navigator of the team. Playing at No 10, he's got to steer the ship and that's a big ask when he's playing with guys who have had so many Tests and he's had 10 at most. But he's getting more comfortable. He's enjoying the environment."

Slade is asked how it feels to be flanked by Muliaina, who gets his 100th cap because of the injury to the brilliantly emerging full-back Israel Dagg, and Mealamu, the hooker who found some notoriety in the company of his friend and ferocious former team-mate Tana Umaga when they were accused of spear-tackling Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll in Christchurch six years ago. "Of course, it is reassuring – especially when they say that everyone has their own responsibility, it's not just me," Slade declares.

Muliaina says, "All you can say is that he has earned his place in the team and we have all told him that if we lose the World Cup it will not be because Dan Carter's not there – it will be because we haven't played well."

Those who look beyond the imposing edifice of this team, and the erudition and the intellectual bite of Henry and say that the All Blacks are no less susceptible to ambush these next few weeks than they were in the previous five tournaments which followed their one and only victory in the first tournament on home soil in 1987, are of course just waiting for the first familiar fissures to show on the brilliant surface of the New Zealand game.

They say that the departure of Carter is already working at the composure of the team who looked so serene when he was the master puppeteer in the destruction of the French in a group game – and that growing doubts about the ability of captain Richie McCaw to last the course could well cause further erosion against Argentina.

The bleakest forecasts speak of an old national paranoia and, for all the protests of Henry and the Praetorian guard which still forms potentially the most devastating back row in all of rugby, it is pointed out that however much the inherent nerve of Slade is talked up, he made an agonisingly slow start in the final group victory over Canada.

The worry is that McCaw, forced to work in training shoes and on a reduced schedule because of the piece of metal inserted during a foot operation, is playing on as some kind of antidote to the psychological damage caused by Carter's sickening departure.

Oscar Wilde was damning about children who lost both their parents but how would the All Blacks stay out of the orphanage – or from under the heel of either South Africa or Australia in the semi-finals in the absence of not just Carter but also McCaw?

Brad Thorne, the second rower who has 56 Test caps, dredges up a little reassurance when he declares: "Apart from anything else, Richie is very intelligent. He's not going to do anything emotional just because Danny Carter is missing. If he is playing, it is because he believes it is the right decision."

Henry, who was so dismayed when his team crumbled four years ago at an outbreak of French brilliance on what seemed like the point of their own disintegration, is, it seems, willing to play all morning long the game of shoring up the belief of his men.

Mention any of his troops, from the now historic Muliaina to the ultimate versatility of the budding sensation Sonny Bill Williams and the coach who at times can growl and dicker like some back street politician is for today's purposes as expansive as a big-shot version on the campaign trail.

Did someone ask if the quick, pugilistic Sonny Bill might one day operate as a flanker after his all-purpose days as a running, brilliantly off-loading back? "It's an interesting idea," says Henry. "I've never thought about it but this is a player who sometimes has you thinking he could do anything he wanted."

He almost gloats over the sweet destruction within the power of the back row of McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read – and then he gives the floor to Kaino, who at 28 and with 45 caps says that he is ready to reach out for his great ambition. Yes, Kaino says, he has done all of the work he set himself. He listened to the ferocious practitioner of his particular trade, Jerry Collins, and put into place the final ingredient – the relentless, snapping aggression of the masters of the back-row art. "Jerry told me I had to be more of a mongrel, an attack dog, and I think I have that now. I think it was the final stage for me."

Henry is almost garrulous now, swigging a takeaway coffee, and, as a final, avuncular touch, confirming the centurion Muliaina as a fully paid up member of the "All Blacks Leadership Group". The coach wanted to congratulate a special man who had been world class for many years – "the consummate professional, really".

With such men, how can New Zealand fail? It is all very well but then you walk outside into the brightening sun and you see all the cameras and the TV wagons and all the longing and you have to wonder again. You see Colin Slade standing alone, in reality for at least another 36 hours and, who knows, maybe for the rest of his rugby life.

Team news: Argentina know they need a 'perfect game'

The Argentina captain Felipe Contepomi has conceded the Pumas will have to produce the "perfect game" to stand any chance of beating New Zealand in tomorrow's quarter-final.

The bookies have given New Zealand a 27-point start on the Pumas and Contepomi admitted his men will be playing for pride first. He is barely considering an upset. "We have to try to do the perfect game and if we prepare our tactics well, then luck may go our way," said the former Leinster fly-half, who is five points short of setting a new Argentina points record. With the exception of No 8 Leonardo Senatore, who has taken over from the injured Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, it is the same Argentina team that started their win over Scotland.

New Zealand have selected Contepomi's former Toulon team-mate Sonny Bill Williams on the wing. Williams' handling skills are brilliant but he is an unknown quantity on the wing, particularly under the high ball, which is a tactic the Pumas are sure to use. "Sonny is an outstanding player, wherever he starts," said Contepomi. "He will start on the wing but probably he will be moving all around the pitch."

New Zealand: 15 Muliaina; 14 Jane, 13 Smith, 12 Nonu, 11 Williams; 10 Slade, 9 Weepu; 1 Woodcock, 2 Mealamu, 3 Franks, 4 Thorn, 5 Whitelock, 6 Kaino, 7 McCaw (capt), 8 Read.

Argentina: 15 Rodriguez; 14 Camacho, 13 Bosch, 12 Contepomi (capt), 11 Agulla; 10 Fernandez, 9 Vergallo; 1 Roncero, 2 Ledesma, 3 Figallo; 4 Carizza, 5 Albacete, 6 Cabello, 7 Leguizamon, 8 Senatore.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

Kick-off: Tomorrow 8.30am, ITV 1

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