Kiwis' lack of faith in Carter stand-in could provoke choke
Doubt will finish you as a sportsman. Some of the biggest teams in this World Cup were scuppered by their fears and it looks as if the best of the lot, the All Blacks, may be having their own dark moments.
It is not something that has suddenly appeared. I felt it over the summer, right in the heart of rugby country where the All Blacks rule and dominate every single conversation.
I was on tour with David Kirk and John Eales raising money for rescue helicopters. Wellington, Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch were our venues, where packed arenas were desperate to devour every rugby morsel offered.
But the same question and answer came up every night. "Can anyone beat New Zealand?" we were asked, and before we could answer, from the ink black of the seats beyond the stage lights, voices whispered in unison the same fearful mantra: "only themselves, only themselves".
I never bought into their worries. The All Blacks were peaking at the right time, their preparations too perfect this time round to be derailed by history or hoodoo or choking.
But then, with one mistimed practice kick, with a couple of match injuries, everything seems to have changed.
There are signs that doubt has crept in. Dan Carter was everything to this All Blacks team and his injury and subsequent sidelining from the tournament matters.
The All Blacks still have great players, it is just that they do not have the one that matters the most.
In the same way you have Lionel Messi at Barcelona, and had Michael Jordan at the Chicago Bulls and Shane Warne for Australia, he is a once-in-a-generation player who was building a once-in-a-lifetime team.
What made New Zealand so good was their ability to beat opponents in a number of different ways in a variety of styles.
It has been a very hard thing to learn and the leadership of Carter has been crucial in this process of improvement and understanding. He has been the man to put the rhythm on the side, the string-puller, the conductor, the caller and the decision-maker.
Ultimately, the out-half is the general on the field, no matter how good the openside or the wingers on the fringes. He has to decide when to drive the line-out or get off-the-top ball, attack the short side of the scrum or put width on it, go from deep or play for territory.
This is true of an All Black, a Lion or a Preston Grasshopper.
With Carter at 10, the All Blacks had a balance that was exceptional -- hard-nosed forwards, a great set-piece, mongrel back-row, strike runners out wide, precision when it mattered and a real midfield threat.
With Carter, the 10 was the hub of the team, defences went after him and gaps opened up in other places. Without Carter, they are a very different side.
Against Argentina there were long periods when the management of the game changed.
Piri Weepu, at scrum-half, became the key playmaker and while he had a nice game, this was against a Pumas side riddled with injuries and lacking the ability to really hurt the All Blacks.
It mattered less that the All Black runners came off nine, that the sniping runs were in and around the fringes and that he needed to take a couple of extra steps to look for gaps. Less was seen of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
The ball being shifted out looked more like a second option rather than a first choice and as a result New Zealand became more predictable. The out-half became a secondary receiver, and that is not what is supposed to happen with this All Black team.
They need the 10 to be the hub that the rest of the team's spokes spin off. It is a complex conundrum for Graham Henry and his coaching staff.
They are right to say that the new out-halves should not try to copy Carter.
The problem they have is that they need the rest of the side to act as if Carter was still there.
Now is not the time to doubt a system, to doubt an individual or the way the team has played in the lead-up to this competition.
Losing Carter is a blow.
But what will cripple the All Blacks is if they suddenly question the out-half as the natural leader of the team.
You cannot sideline a position as important as out-half just because you are fearful, even if you will not admit it, that the new man cannot do the job.
If New Zealand begin to doubt their own credentials then there is every chance a dark pall of pessimism will fall over the Land of the Long White Cloud for another four years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)