James Lawton: To understand the world's best player, you must take a trip to Carter Country

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The Independent Online

It's not so much of a file, rather a few scraps of notes, some accounts from those who saw close up the rise of the phenomenon and a little sense of the small, scrubbed agricultural towns of New Zealand's South Island, surrounded by their fields of wheat and clover, and all with the same trinity of war memorial, salesman's hotel and farmer's pub and rugby club.

But it does paint a picture of Carter Country – the origins of the player who today is arguably the most compelling centrepiece of any game ever played at Twickenham.

Dan Carter, at 26, has long been regarded as the world's best rugby player, a marvel of nerve and timing and skill, and so when he regrets so deeply that in such desperate times England cannot entrust their most naturally talented player, Danny Cipriani, with more than a place on the bench, everyone – and not least the 21-year-old Wasps fly-half – is bound to listen.

Cipriani might also just peek into the Carter file – one that was compiled three years ago when the All Black No 10 was destroying the British Lions and confirming all the years of promise that stretched back to boyhood – because there he will see that while the great player, as he generously admits, never had to put up with the kind of paparazzi assault that has marked his own emergence as a leading player, he had not exactly gone short of attention in a nation of four million souls mostly obsessed with the oval ball.

At an early age he was marked down for greatness. After a visit to Christchurch High School, Steve Hansen, All Black assistant coach, delivered a verdict that crackled its way to Carter's hometown of Southbridge. Hansen said, "I have just seen a kid who is sure to play for Canterbury and New Zealand – and could just be the best player rugby has ever seen."

Endorsements, including an extremely popular underwear advert, came in a rush and he won a bigger vote for the title of New Zealand's sexiest male than his compatriot Hollywood star Russell Crowe.

But then if Carter concedes that even such an on-rush of fame fell some way short of the attention routinely received by Cipriani from the English media, there is at least a hint that he believes part of the solution to a dismayingly erratic start to an international career lies in his young rival's hands.

Carter also said, "I'm very lucky. I pride myself on being able to focus 100 per cent."

Such a claim, reinforced by a stunning record of 862 points gleaned from 58 internationals, can only sound forlornly distant in the ears of a Cipriani whose brief run at the highest level has been disfigured quite hideously by three try-conceding, charged-down kicks.

For Carter, at any age, that would represent not so much a career crisis as the spilling of the Holy Grail.

To understand the degree of his commitment, his almost religious sense of responsibility to the game he plays, you also need to know a little more about that hometown 30 miles into the farmland surrounding Christchurch.

Southbridge has a population of slightly more than 700. It runs nine rugby teams, from seven-year-olds to the Golden Oldies charging towards their 50th birthdays and beyond. Membership of the club is around 200. Carter says, "I suppose a little bit of my heart will always be on that field in Southbridge."

A former team-mate at the club and the local school Ellesmere College, Shane Taylor, said, "There are two Danny Carters, one is the ordinary guy you know so well – and then there is the other one who steps on the field and can do anything he wants. Then he becomes separate. Whenever we were in trouble, whenever the pressure seemed a bit too much, all of us would say – give it to Danny, he will find a way."

He couldn't find a way to win the World Cup last year but in his exasperated and bewildered homeland there is some old certainty returning to another broken place – in 2011, at 29 and on his own soil, Carter should finally be in position to end all those years of bizarre waste since the first and only All Black triumph in 1987.

If it happens, few individual sporting destinies will have been rooted so deeply in ferocious effort – and few examples will have been so clearly set for a young man of Cipriani's potentially huge, but currently endangered, gifts.

Chris McKinnan, president of Southbridge rugby club, locked up his office for an hour to show the town's most prized possession – Carter's first All Black jersey framed in the clubhouse bar. McKinnan tells you, "Go into any little town in this country and find a place like this and they will tell you what Danny Carter has given to us is the most precious thing – apart from identity, pride and belief in our past, which we know has been great – but also the future.

"You know the worry has been that with farms going so mechanised and the young lads having to leave for the big cities to find work, the old rugby culture might be in trouble. But then you see what Danny has done and you say, 'Well, here is an example for everybody' – every kid in the street wants to be Danny Carter.

"They have more belief in themselves when they see his progress. We were suffering a terrible drop-off when kids reached 17 or 18. They were running into more physically mature Polynesian players. They were being knocked about and discouraged. But now the supply lines are open again."

Three years on, New Zealand come to Twickenham trailing so much of the old aura of invincibility. Danny Carter is not only their best player, he is their very spirit. To Danny Cipriani he must say many things. Most importantly, no doubt, he says that when you are given a great talent you have to nurture it every day – and night.

Arnesen joins Comolli as the game's elect become its damned


First Damien Comolli at Spurs, now Frank Arnesen at Chelsea – you could call it the retreat of great power without front-line responsibility.


At Tottenham it finally dawned on the chairman, Daniel Levy, that while his former managers Martin Jol and Juande Ramos were being dragged to the sacrificial altar of failure, Comolli, his resident mastermind, or director of football, was sailing along with scarcely a sniff of accountability. Now Arnesen, Comolli's predecessor at White Hart Lane and the man with the most opulent scouting budget in football, has fallen victim to Roman Abramovich's new emphasis on value for money.

For a little while Arnesen and Comolli were the new elect of football, sidetracking that old-fashioned concept of having a proven foot- ball man running the show and making all the vital calls.


Not for the first time Arsène Wenger has proved himself somewhat ahead of much received football wisdom. When he was asked, last season, for his view on the value of a football director he paused, briefly, and said, "Let's put it this way, the day you see Arsenal have appointed a director of football, that's the day I'm gone."


Some Arsenal fans might be a little ambivalent about such a prospect. At least, that is, until victory over Chelsea tomorrow.

England's hasty retreat is a discourtesy

Events in Mumbai yesterday continued to stress the seriousness of the terrorist problem in India. However, the swiftness of the departure of England's cricketers still caused a ripple of unease. This was despite the fact that a strong body of opinion in India believes that to continue with the scheduled Test matches would be, to quote one correspondent, nothing less than "highly flippant". That, though, is only one view and the sight of England dashing to the airport, instead of taking advantage of a day or two of reflection from behind extremely tight security many miles from Mumbai, did in the circumstances seem a little less than courteous.

This impression is compounded by the word from the camp that it is likely most members of the party will decide to stay home in England now whatever the nature of the security reports – or the wishes of the host nation.

No one is saying the choice is easy – or that criticism of players who decide the risks are too great is legitimate if not enough important questions can be answered satisfactorily by the authorities. Still, the first priority in India is to establish that life can carry on normally, a belief that is always the first target of terrorism. In this area at least, it can be said that England have not exactly played a straight bat.

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