Carter lifts All Blacks to another dimension
With a smile as broad as the Tasman Sea, Dan Carter revelled in the rebuke he had just given to those with the temerity to doubt him.
Past it? A pale imitation of his once peerless self? Not on the evidence of this exhibition of the No 10's art at Eden Park, where he reasserted his status as the alpha male among fly-halves with a display for New Zealand brimful of verve, attacking intent, and a few sumptuous sleights of hand.
While Carter has relinquished his right to continue as an All Black by moving to Racing Metro, where he will replace Johnny Sexton next season in rugby's first £1m-a-year deal, he has kept alive his ambition to play a leading role in a triumphant World Cup for his country.
At 33, he remains motivated by the agony of missing out on the final in Auckland four years ago with a groin injury, discovering some of the finest form of his career to swat aside Beauden Barrett as the team's first choice in England next month.
His inspiration coloured every facet of New Zealand's 41-13 demolition of Australia, to ensure that the Bledisloe Cup stayed in Kiwi hands for a 12th straight year.
It was his exquisite offload that had unleashed hooker Dane Coles for the opening try, his flat passes that allowed Ma'a Nonu to cause mayhem outside him, and his seven out of eight successes with the boot - the only one he missed being a 50-metre monster of a penalty - that elevated the All Blacks to another dimension.
"To think that I won't be putting on the black jersey in New Zealand again, it's great to go out on such a high," said Carter, who admitted that a pep talk from backs coach Ian Foster helped purge the memory of an off-colour display in Sydney in the first Bledisloe Test.
"He wanted me to be demanding of the team, to drive them around and take ownership, to be clear in my voice. At times in the previous week, we were probably a little bit cluttered, thinking about too much rather than just going out there and playing."
Energised by the fervour of the Auckland crowd, Carter found a level of play rich in instinctive brilliance, as he attacked the line at will to leave Australian defenders floundering in his vapour-trails. Even the normally gruff Steve Hansen could not resist a satisfied grin.
Asked about Carter's destructive influence in taking the ball to the line, the head coach replied: "We all saw how much more effective he is that way. He was special. This will be huge for him, because he'll get a lot of confidence out of it."
Richie McCaw, who alongside Carter, was making his farewell to Eden Park in a record-breaking 142nd Test appearance, claimed he had never worried about his team-mate's capacity for this type of resurgence.
"For a start, I'm just pleased we gave him some decent ball to operate with," the captain said. "I don't think any of us who have played with him ever doubted that he could perform as he did here. When you have a man like that directing, one who has played 106 Tests, you realise that he knows what he is doing."
To claim the All Blacks are heading to England as World Cup favourites is on a par with saying that McCaw, so revered in his native land that he has already turned down a knighthood, has had a half-decent run in the back row.
Indeed, the outpouring of gratitude to the soon-to-retire flanker was of such sincerity that one wondered if New Zealand would not simply retire his jersey, but withdraw the figure 7 from their entire numerical system.
The platform for McCaw to sign off for good as leader of the first side to win back-to-back World Cup titles could not have been better laid. The conundrum for Hansen is how to fit a multitude of potential pieces around him.
At inside centre at least, the debate about whether to start Nonu or Sonny Bill Williams for the crucial games in England has been decisively resolved, with Nonu offering a reminder against Australia that there is no more potent midfield force on the planet.
On the wings, the question is more vexed, with Ben Smith and Julian Savea under increasing pressure from young Nehe Milner-Skudder, who showed exceptional poise in only his second Test.
The caveat to any eulogies, of course, is that the All Blacks are yet to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy outside New Zealand. But the sheer polish of this trans-Tasman thrashing suggested they were heading north with a powerful appetite to make more history. (© Daily Telegraph, London)