EXCLUSIVE: Peter Bills talks to All Black Dan Carter about his neverending pursuit of perfection, how he wants to be remembered and how he fears Ireland will be out for revenge on Saturday as they seek to banish the miserable memory of New Plymouth
Published 15/11/2010 | 05:00
For the man who has it all, the search for perfection goes on. Vision, commitment, intelligence, pragmatism, pace and pride in the jersey -- New Zealand's Dan Carter is arguably the leading practitioner of the game in world rugby today.
Already, at 28, a player certain to be remembered as one of the sport's finest, Carter outwardly exudes a calm, controlled persona -- yet it hides an interior where the fires of ambition still burn fiercely.
Even as he approaches 80 Test caps, the superb All Black seeks more from himself and the team. "I still believe I have a lot of my best rugby ahead of me," he says without a hint of arrogance.
"The last year or two has been pretty tough for me with injuries and things. So this tour to the northern hemisphere will be a good challenge because I have had ankle surgery and haven't played for 10 weeks. I'm looking to add more acceleration to my play.
"If I can get through this tour with some solid performances, I will put myself in good stead in terms of getting my body right for a good season next year. That is going to be challenging but I have played enough rugby now to know what I need to do to get through.
"But there are still a lot of areas of my game I am looking to improve. I still want to show I have a lot to offer."
When is he at his happiest and would it involve rugby? There is not a moment's hesitation.
"Yes, definitely it would involve the game. Perhaps I am happiest when I am fit and working extremely hard. I love it when you put in the hard work and your body feels good and fresh.
"Life is pretty good and I wouldn't change anything for the world. This is a dream job, playing for the All Blacks, a dream come true. The environment around my team-mates is a pretty good place to be."
This relentless drive for improvement, a neverending search for a rugby Valhalla in terms of individual and collective performances, gnaws away at the psyche of Carter and his colleagues. It was always so with those who wore this famed jersey.
So I ask him what sort of percentage the New Zealanders believe they can still improve? The answer will bring a sobering chill to the minds of the northern hemisphere players.
"We were pretty happy with the way we started off in the Tri Nations this year. But we thought we then tapered off a little and some of the later games were a lot closer. So we realise we need to improve. Graham Henry has said, we are only around 75pc of where we would like to be. There are still a few areas where we need to improve, which is fantastic.
"We are getting some good results but have found areas of our game we would like to improve and this tour is an opportunity to try some new things."
While he admits that too much can be read into these end-of-season tours in both June and November, he points to New Zealand's recent outstanding record in the northern hemisphere. Plainly, there is a dichotomy here.
Ireland, he says, looked tired when they played the All Blacks in New Plymouth last June. "You could almost sense they were coming to the end of a long season. They will have been very disappointed with that game."
Yet when he discusses the All Blacks in the northern hemisphere after their players' long season, it is as though the same rules do not exist. "We have been pretty successful over previous years in the northern hemisphere," he says.
"We hope it will be the same this time and we don't want to start thinking about a break yet. The last thing you want is to have a break after losing a game or two on an end-of-season tour. So we put everything into these matches. The team take them very seriously and want to win on every occasion.
"We can use them as development as well because it is an extended squad to what we would have for the Tri Nations matches and the home Tests. That is good for the development of the side."
This goes to the heart of the reasons why New Zealand have so often been superior to northern hemisphere countries. Ireland and Scotland (who suffered a 46-point hammering on Saturday) have never beaten them, Wales haven't done so since 1953 and England have won only two of their last 17 games against them.
To put it bluntly, it matters so much more to New Zealand than any of these other nations. Bill Shankly's old joke about it being a lot more important than life or death could have been invented for them.
If you doubt the core issue of this argument, consider Dan Carter's thoughts on how he would like to be remembered when he does finally retire from Test rugby. He goes well beyond the desire to have simply played for his country, perhaps scored a few good tries and helped win some matches. That is merely the starting point.
"I want to be remembered as a great All Black. I don't use that term lightly because I don't like using that terminology," he says. "But to be remembered as a great All Black is not easy. You have to be around a long time and achieve a lot of things. At the end of my career, hopefully after a few more seasons in the jersey, I hope people will remember me as someone who was there for a long time and gave everything that he possibly could and added to the All Black legacy."
Before that happens, injuries permitting, Carter will play at least one and perhaps two more World Cups. But he, like his coach, is very clear that the All Blacks will not be sacrificing their open, attacking style of rugby with which they have flourished this year for a safety-first, kicking-based approach either on this tour or at the World Cup next year.
Yet he acknowledges it could be tougher to produce that game in the northern hemisphere in November and under the searing pressures of a World Cup. "Potentially yes, it will be harder especially in the northern hemisphere. With some sides they can almost stop you from playing that style of rugby and make it difficult.
"And in previous World Cups it has not always been the attacking sides that have won the tournaments. But we are confident about the way the new law interpretations have really opened up the game. We are enjoying playing this style of game and we won't change anything in that respect in the next 12 months.
"On the big occasions, it is important to be able to perform under pressure. If we are able to handle that pressure and have confidence we have no reason to kick the ball all the time and play safety-first rugby."
Together with captain Richie McCaw, Carter is seen as a stand-out performer for the team. Should New Zealanders not be worried with so heavy a dependence on just two players? Carter doesn't think so because he sees other potential leaders emerging in the side.
"We are working hard to build a strong core group of players. And already there is good leadership in the side apart from Richie and me. There is a lot of confidence that we have the players and strength in depth."
Carter spent a few months with Perpignan in 2008-09 and enjoyed his time in France, living a different sort of lifestyle. "I'm a firm believer in having a balance in your life. So when I'm not involved in rugby I prefer to be right away from it. It helps to get out of New Zealand every now and then, and get away from all the attention and people talking about rugby. On this tour too, that will be possible in some places like London," he says.
"It is part of the reason I went to France, to play and travel in Europe. It is important mentally to get away from it all when you can. When I am involved with rugby I give 100pc but if I get a week or so off, I enjoy getting away from it and having that balance."
So how does he rate his chances of finding anonymity in Ireland? He smiles. "Maybe not the best. But I love travelling to Ireland; I've been there a couple of times although only played one game against them. It is a fantastic place and the people are very passionate about rugby.
"I see them as pretty similar to us Kiwis. They are very friendly, warm and welcoming. Playing there is always great. This year will be especially good, going back to Lansdowne Road to play Test rugby. Croke Park was a good stadium but it will be pretty special playing at the new Lansdowne Road ground."
And how does he assess the Irish side and their likely thinking for Saturday's clash?
"The Irish will be gutted with the way they played against us in New Zealand earlier in the year. They will want to turn things around from that performance so they will be fired up.
"One of their strengths is they have a core group of players who have been around for a long time and have a lot of experience. So those guys can lead that team.
"They have a powerful pack and when they get going they are hard to stop. They also have some talented backs to follow on from the momentum the forwards create.
"Overall, there is enough leadership and experience to get them through the big games so they are always a threat."
Throughout the northern hemisphere teams, he believes, a host of young players perhaps fresh to international rugby will put their hands up for World Cup inclusion over the coming months.
But talking of threats, who does he see as New Zealand's most dangerous challengers at the World Cup?
France and Australia, he says, intriguingly, although he adds the rider that the South Africans will always be a danger.
"France are very dangerous; they are the team that stick out, for me. They have shown through their performances in the last couple of years in the Six Nations, they are a real force to be reckoned with," he says.
"You never write off the English at a World Cup either but I would still put Australia right up there in the category of most dangerous, although we have been pretty successful against them of late.
"We believe they will pose a huge threat at the World Cup. They have a lot of young talent that is acquiring quite a few caps. In 10 months' time they will be an even more dangerous team."
But ask every country who THEY fear most and the answer is inevitable. New Zealand.