Carter recharges his batteries ahead of All Blacks' drive to 'leave a legacy' at World Cup
A sabbatical would once have seemed an alien concept to Dan Carter, an affront to the immersive experience of being an All Black. But with 100 Tests has come a certain brittleness, a realisation that the best bulwark to his longevity is an escape.
For five months, and the first time in more than a decade, Carter has luxuriated in the fulfilment of his own 'bucket list', an enviable feat for a man of 32. The London boardroom where we meet, admiring gun-barrel views of Tower Bridge, is just the latest stop in a week that has already encompassed the Coachella Festival in the Colorado Desert, plus three days at the Masters in Augusta. "I was just in the gym working out, and the next thing I know Rory McIlroy and Jason Dufner come in," he says. "It was pretty surreal."
It helps that Carter can call upon the right contacts among the green jackets, securing an invitation from Craig Heatley, a New Zealand businessman with a £200m fortune from television and also, for Masters week, chairman of the media committee. So seamlessly did Carter blend in that journalists at Adam Scott's press conference were nonplussed to discover they shared a forum with the world's finest fly-half.
"When I knew I had time off, I knew there were two places I just had to get to – one being the grand prix in Melbourne, and the other Augusta. It was absolutely incredible."
Carter has followed the path travelled by Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain who, after his centenary of caps, was ordered by Steve Hansen, the head coach, to take time off for his own benefit. The ruse came at the right time, too, for this peerless No 10, who had found his powers compromised by a catalogue of stubborn injuries.
Even on the occasion of his 100th Test at Twickenham, where he was given a golden boot in his honour and for which father Neville flew over from the South Island, he limped off after 25 minutes with an Achilles strain.
"It can be hard to move past certain injuries," he admits. "I had four different ones before I reached my 100th, and my team-mates started joking that I was in the 'nervous nineties'. To get that behind me was such a relief."
For all his easy amiability, Carter still has the deportment of the superstar, the linchpin of a first ever perfect season, the 'man of the millennium' in his native land. "I won't be reintegrating into rugby for a few months yet," he says, aware that he will miss the three Test home series against England in June. "But then I'll have the usual pre-season of absolutely thrashing myself."
Conscious of Jonny Wilkinson's imminent retirement at Toulon, he could not, however, be more generous in his praise for a long-time rival.
"When I started playing international rugby in 2003, he was right at the pinnacle of his career. He has had so many injury setbacks, but to have the resilience to hang in there, to know that success can never be fluked, is a reflection of the guy he is."
Carter is only two years Wilkinson's junior, but do not assume the natural onset of decrepitude in so brutal an arena has caught up with him yet. He keenly recalls the agony of missing New Zealand's 2011 World Cup triumph in Auckland with a groin injury, and has every intention claiming his compensation in the next final at Twickenham on October 31, 2015. "I love playing on the big stage, and there's no bigger stage than a World Cup final. Unfortunately, I missed out three years ago, so you could say I'm pretty motivated to give myself a chance at the next one."
Record-setting is paramount for this New Zealand side, if only because of its enriching of the All Black mythology, and the target of becoming the first country to win consecutive World Cups also obtrudes in Carter's thinking.
"It's something to embrace, as we really want to leave a legacy. We love creating history, and the fact that no team has done it before shows it is not easy to do. I've been involved in three World Cups, and bizarre things happen, which no can ever predict. But it is a goal to win it back-to-back."
One wonders how the All Blacks can motivate themselves afresh in 2014, after an immaculate 14-0 campaign that featured two especially majestic victories in Johannesburg and Dublin, but in Carter they have a man who will not settle for less than perfection.
"We can take a lot of confidence in the situations we found ourselves in during 2013, because that win against Ireland showed the huge self-belief in this team. But we need to draw a line." (© Daily Telegraph, London)