Spencer steps off roller-coaster on to front line

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The Independent Online

They are starting to call him King Carlos, which probably wouldn't go down too well in Spain outside of Madrid RFC. Tomorrow, Carlos Spencer will lead the All Blacks in the haka prior to the semi-final against Australia four long years after leaving the world stage under a black cloud.

Spencer damaged a knee at a training session in London in the 1999 World Cup and returned home without playing a match. His team-mates sent him on his way by performing the haka, for an audience of one.

"It was pretty emotional,'' he recalled. "I had a few tears in my eyes. It's always hard to leave. What happened was a disaster and it is something I would like to forget. The knee injury was a pain in the butt. I left London with a haka and now I am leading it. With my Maori background it's a great honour.''

Spencer, who grew up in the small town of Levin on North Island, has a large family tattoo on his left forearm. If New Zealand win the cup, half the country will be wearing it.

He featured in the squad in 1996 and 1997 when the All Blacks were virtually invincible and has since found himself in and out of the team, either through form, injury or the presence of Andrew Mehrtens.

"It's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, mate,'' Spencer said. "Some things challenge you and that's the way I look at it. Overall I've had a pretty good run. I wouldn't change anything really.''

Spencer injured his shoulder against England on last year's end-of-season tour, decided against an operation and spent the summer on a strengthening and fitness regime.

"The World Cup wasn't my long-term goal," he said. "Being back in the black jersey was the most important thing. I knew if I did everything right during the year then the World Cup would come.''

There was very nearly a detour when Leicester offered him a king's ransom and thought they had got their man. The intervention and financial clout of a millionaire from Fiji, a supporter of Auckland and New Zealand rugby, persuaded Spencer to sign on for another three years.

"I've had a couple of chances to go overseas but at the end of the day I love it in New Zealand,'' he said. "My friends and family are there and it is a great place to play rugby. But my main reason was that I wanted to play for the All Blacks again.''

When the New Zealand coach, John Mitchell, left Mehrtens out of his Tri-Nations squad, naming Spencer as his stand-off or five-eighth, it was clear the All Blacks were embarking on a certain style, modelled to an extent on the flamboyance of Auckland.

Spencer, with support from the wings Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko, and the fullback Mils Muliaina, inspired Auckland to the Super 12 title, winning 12 of 13 matches, playing a game based on speed, wits and a willingness to counterattack from almost anywhere. New Zealand won the Tri-Nations and the Bledisloe Cup in similar fashion. There is, however, space in the cupboard for something else.

"To play in every game and not get injured has been a huge bonus,'' Spencer said. Yet he never appears without a tape strapped around his left knee and spent much of New Zealand's opening pool game against Italy limping, the legacy of a crunching tackle by the centre Andrea Masi. He hit Spencer with such force that he knocked the stand-off into Tana Umaga, who suffered a ruptured ligament of the knee and has not played since.

Nor was that Spencer's only disquieting moment. After Wales scored four tries against New Zealand in Sydney, and 24 points in a bewitching 12-minute spell, Spencer was roundly criticised at home for being too casual by half.

Even after he had created two of the tries in the quarter-final victory over South Africa in Melbourne, one with a searing 60-yard break, another with a pass between his legs to Rokocoko, Spencer was not singled out for praise by the New Zealand management. Indeed, Mitchell, without naming him, had a sly dig at his playmaker.

"We're not really into inhibiting our players but we do have a policy in certain aspects of attack and defence,'' Mitchell said. "It is a matter of taking each player through certain situations and looking at what is best for the team as opposed to the individual. That's the only way you improve.

"It is important that individuals connect and combinations connect. No individual is greater than the sum of the team so we ask our players to work for each other. If you don't, you are unlikely to get rewarded. Against South Africa we didn't finish a lot of opportunities and some of our skills let us down at vital moments. We were probably a little bit selfish in some of our play.''

What Mitchell was referring to was Spencer's rather daft decision to opt for two drop-goals against the Springboks when the All Blacks were in great attacking positions inside the 22. He missed both. "It was just a spur of the moment thing,'' Spencer said. "I look at what the defence is doing and how they're lining up.''

Relieved of the goal-kicking duties by Leon MacDonald, Spencer can concentrate on his running game. "The team approach suits my style. With the players we have on the wings, if you can get the ball with a bit of space they have shown what they can do. There's a good feeling in the side. Everyone is happy with each other and things are going well. It is always happy camping when you are winning.''

WORLD CUP SCHEDULE

SEMI-FINALS

SATURDAY: Sydney (0900 GMT)

New Zealand v Australia

TV: Live: ITV1 and S4C

SUNDAY: Sydney (0900)

France v England

TV: Live: ITV1 and S4C

THIRD-PLACE PLAY-OFF

THURSDAY 20 NOV Sydney (0900)

FINAL

SATURDAY 22 NOV Sydney (0900)

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