Nick Townsend: Everywhere man Carter unlocks riches

All Blacks' inspirational No 10 denies England with performance close to perfection
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The Independent Online

There was barely a hair out of place as he joined the All Blacks' celebratory huddle, while the announcement was made that he had been named man of the match. Yet probably the only thought permeating Carter's mind was that, for all his contribution to New Zealand's victory, achieved despite the serial sin-binning of so many personnel they could have been subject of a communal Asbo, he had committed the cardinal sin of missing a penalty. No matter that the aberration was only his first in 25 attempts at goal in a career in which he has already amassed 354 points for New Zealand.

In a display by his team characterised by sheer bloody-minded refusal to yield to Martin Corry's men once the second-half trudge to the touchline had begun for the All Blacks' guilty men, Carter belied his slight frame. Immense in stature, the fly-half has, like his archaeologist namesake How-ard, developed a knack of unlocking riches: in the performances of others, as much as his own. Here he was instrumental in both All Black tries. If only, from England's viewpoint, that was the beginning and end of his attributes, they could probably live with it.

It is his sheer ubiquity that marks him out as a great player; the ability to be always present when required, whether it was his part in New Zealand's first try, eluding a challenge from Corry as though he were brushing off a tramp begging for pennies, or bringing Mark Cueto's run to an untimely end when the England winger threatened to break loose down the flank. By the end, Carter epitomised New Zealand's valiant last stand, when - still a man down - they defied their hosts, who looked certain to overcome the world No 1 team.

His affinity with Tana Umaga appears almost telepathic, their interplay at times mesmeric. "It happens when you play with someone for so long," said the New Zealand captain afterwards. "I just hang on to his coat-tails and pick things up on the way."

Carter missed the triumph over Ireland last Saturday, although he had already served notice of intent against Wales, with a performance which included 26 points. Last time these two sides met here, in 2002, a 23-year-old piece of British beefcake, Jonny Wilkinson, painted a 21-point masterpiece against the All Blacks. This time, the 23-year-old Carter was expected to do the same in return, and a good deal more, having made his adversary look like Wilko Lite in Wellington. Yesterday, it was Charlie Hodgson who was in opposition, and he provided yet more evidence that he is ready for comparison when Wilko regains international fitness.

But you simply cannot take your eyes off Carter. The problem is that England did, twice, with destructive results. Having eluded them for the first try, he did so again just after half-time with a run which set up Keven Mealamu's touchdown.

Despite having averaged nearly 40 points in recent games, New Zealand emphasised how they regarded the magnitude of their examination ahead with a "special" rendition of the haka. Special in that it was more suited to the Old Kent Road, and the Kray twins, than a prime sporting occasion. "Our ferocity will be overwhelming" was a rough translation of this even more intimidatory version, with its cutthroat ritual, led by Umaga.

Does the whole business establish a psychological edge? In truth, it is not much more than a quasi-religious piece of showmanship. But how to react? Australia's David Campese, of course, simply turned his back. This England simply responded with a pugilist's unblinking stare from close quarters. England's formal riposte was a rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory", which did not appear to have the visitors quaking in apprehension.

What concerned them more was England's approach. Their head coach, Andy Robinson, had called for the intensity of his team's play to be racheted up two or three notches. It was what he duly received from the start.

If the All Blacks anticipated they would engage in some bloodletting after reasserting themselves following the interval, Graham Henry's men instead found themselves victims of attempted strangulation by England, which they resisted only with the utmost in resourceful defending by Carter and his depleted forces. "We expected this today," said Umaga. "But we'll take a win any way we can get it. We showed great heart and belief and dug our toes in."

Well before the end, but for the occasional scintillating foray, the All Blacks' dancing shoes had been discarded in favour of hobnails. None more so than Carter. Despite his iconic status back home, the character named Durex's sexiest man - who is inevitably, if mischievously, named among sport's "mirror boys" and has seemingly emerged from the same glamour photo- shoot as Gavin Henson and Wilkinson -does not, his team-mates say, get above himself.

Today he can look at his reflection with pride.