Tuesday 21 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Carter exists in different galaxy

Dan Carter kicks another penalty for New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday in the course of a vintage performance MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Dan Carter kicks another penalty for New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday in the course of a vintage performance MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The thing about Dan Carter is he steps out of rugby war zones polite as a priest doing a hospital round.

He's the best rugby player in the world, but doesn't act as if he knows it. You almost get the feeling that he'd like to go through life as unseen as a hole in the ozone layer. Which, naturally, isn't possible. Not when half the world wants to touch the hem of your garment.

And the other half would, if they ever got to see you play.

On Saturday night, he came to the media like something from a land of make-believe. A miracle of perfect hair, skin and teeth, gently shooting the breeze as if he was talking about matters observed from a distance.

It's probably what great men do. Separate themselves from the smoke and anger. So, he stood before us, impossibly dapper, prefacing every sentence with the bashful chuckle of a kid on a first date.


You half wondered if he might be asked for proof of age in the stadium bar. Or the whereabouts of his parents.

Yet, Carter had just bossed a pulsating Test match with the easy authority of Andre Previn manipulating a concert grand. It was extraordinary. Even when Ireland seemed to have New Zealand in the kind of place few teams ever get them, the All Blacks' out-half looked like someone at a yoga class.

His body intelligence kept carrying him into smart places without conspicuous effort. And his kicking was a nerveless essay in trust. At the time of Ireland's greatest frenzy, Carter's boot held us all in check. If history loomed, he wasn't of a mind to be in the guard of honour.

On the stroke of half-time, he had kicked all of New Zealand's points for a 12-13 deficit. Then they did something that seems written into their psyche. They closed out the game in a murderous pocket of tries.

Three in 10 minutes just pitched them out of sight and afterwards, as we picked at all the small dramas for enlightenment, it was Carter's voice that flew to the core of business.

Applauding Ireland as a team that "really turned up to ," he duly offered the compliment a withering context.

"We just tell each other to be patient," he smiled. "When the game is played at that speed and with that intensity, it's only a matter of time before gaps start to open up. We stuck at it and, sure enough, we made the most of the opportunities that we were given.

"We pride ourselves on our fitness and I guess when teams are defending quite a lot, it does take a lot out of them. It's only a matter of time before you break them. So, we just had to work hard on not being frustrated that we weren't getting the rewards immediately."

Soon he would be talking about the upcoming Test against Wales, how they were "pretty similar" to Ireland, a "very proud nation" and, well, yada yada yada. It suddenly sounded like he was talking about some generic brand of household item.

And that's probably how it feels to be Dan Carter. Next weekend, he will become the most prolific points scorer in international rugby history. He is just 28. Like Bob Beamon in the long-jump, it's not inches he's moving the record forward in, but decades.

So, while Ireland played wonderfully at times on Saturday, they did so in the heroic way of an over-matched prize-fighter. Stephen Ferris talked afterwards of what the big teams do. They give you rope, but only so much. Then they choke you. As a back-handed compliment, Ferris said that he would have handed out a couple of yellow cards to men in black, if only he'd had the licence.

"It's really hard because, when you're in the middle of the pitch, you seem to get fast ball," he said. "But, as soon as you're in their 22, it just keeps getting killed. They get away with it. They're good at it."

Asked if, perhaps, Ireland might learn from such a savvy/cynical approach, Ferris was equivocal. "It's difficult," he said. "If we had got our support there maybe a bit earlier ... you know it's not just New Zealand killing our ball. They're good at poaching the ball legally as well. I thought Richie McCaw did a great job of slowing it down.

"(Peter) Stringer was screaming at the ref a couple of times to try and get the ball away a bit earlier. I saw myself in the wide channels a couple of times with nobody in front of me, Tommy (Bowe) outside me and a couple of players inside.

"And it is frustrating. But we'll work on our rucking this week and, hopefully, it'll not happen next week."

The general consensus was that the new stadium had, at least, been baptised with a proper Test match. When Ferris torqued in off a Jamie Heaslip pass as forward as a wolf-whistle, the place momentarily went mental. Johnny Sexton nailed a wonderful conversion. There were 31 minutes on the clock and Ireland led 13-9.

Sexton had already defied a Kiwi buffoon, yelling from the Lansdowne Road end, to land two immense penalties. Sadly, some of the Irish crowd would respond in kind, jeering Carter on each run-up. That said, the yobs were ultimately defeated. For both place-kickers were impeccable. Yet, that trinity of tries either side of half-time from Anthony Boric, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock essentially set Ireland the task of chasing a team that never slows. Many of their predecessors have folded in such circumstances, so credit that this one didn't.

Brian O'Driscoll's stunning scoop and dive for a 57th-minute try was, arguably, the moment of the game. Yet, always there was the sense of an All Blacks team just easing through the gears.

Still, Sexton suggested that Ireland had -- perhaps -- been authors of their own trouble. "We looked good at times, then just coughed the ball up at key moments," said the Leinster No 10. "They're at their most dangerous when you turn the ball over. So, you've just got to keep the ball against them and bring them through phases.

"We've seen Australia do it in the Tri Nations this year. And they (New Zealand) can look vulnerable, like all sides. Especially with the new rules, you can get quick ball and keep getting over the gain-line, which makes it tough for any team. We've got to look at that. I just think we kicked the ball away a few times when we shouldn't have. We turned it over softly at times.

"Some of that was pressure, some of it our own doing.

"It's one thing we wanted not to do today -- beat ourselves."

Tom Court talked of the scoreline being "maybe a little deceiving." His first start against the All Blacks introduced the Ulster prop to an intensity not easily accessible elsewhere. Pitched in at tight-head against the 72-time capped Tony Woodcock, he more than held his own.

When told of McCaw's assertion afterwards that a succession of toppled scrums might reasonably have resulted in a penalty try for the All Blacks, Court was unimpressed.

"Well, we had a few scrums five metres out at their end and, a couple of times, we started getting a bit of a shunt," he said. "Several times, I looked down and saw (Owen) Franks' head right in front of me, lying across.

"I think the referee did a good job. A penalty try isn't something that should be just thrown out willy-nilly. It should be a last resort."

In the end, Ireland -- as Carter envisaged -- just ran out of steam. Yet, Read's second try in injury-time seemed needlessly cruel and there were palpable gasps when the out-half -- perhaps as a humanitarian gesture -- pulled the touchline conversion wide. His business in Dublin was done by then.

As the teams strolled off, a Guinness ad blazed across the big screen, finishing with the theatrical punch-line: "This is rugby country!" And you could have forgiven the Blacks thinking it a mite pretentious.

For they come from a place where Ireland and Wales and Scotland and, maybe to a lesser extent, England all amount to one and the same challenge. "They were really physical," Carter said of Declan Kidney's boys afterwards.

"They probably out-physicalled (sic) us in that first half. But credit to our guys, we stuck at our work and managed to come away with a good win."

He sounded like someone already thinking of dinner.

Irish Independent

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