Ian McGeechan: Why Dan Carter, the perfect 10, is the best fly-half I have ever seen
Today’s Champions Cup semi-final, Racing 92 against Munster, could be the final time we get to see Dan Carter on the big stage, ahead of his move to Japan this summer. It would not surprise me in the least if he was instrumental in a Racing win and inspired them to the final.
As a coach in international rugby, one of the privileges is seeing great players emerge. Players whose presence and performances change the way the game is played. Without doubt, Dan Carter is one of those.
I will never forget his performance in the second Test of the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand. He was supreme; the most complete No 10 the game had ever seen. And that was saying something.
It was only two years earlier that Jonny Wilkinson had himself shown what an outstanding outside-half was capable of when he drop-kicked England to victory at the World Cup.
I had only seen video clips of Carter before that tour. Although he was first capped prior to the 2003 World Cup, he had been playing second fiddle to Carlos Spencer and started in the centres for the first 18 months of his international career.
This was a great grounding, not so unusual in New Zealand where they have always named 10 and 12 as first and second five-eighths, with a shared responsibility for the midfield play. It is no surprise that 13 years later, everyone is now using second kickers/decision-makers at 12. But that Lions series was the series when Carter came of age as an All Black.
He remains, to my mind, the most complete No 10, and will be seen as one of rugby’s greatest players. That, for me, puts him alongside the player I have always seen as the ultimate benchmark: Gareth Edwards.
There have been some quite exceptional 10s. Players who have a huge impact on games and, I believe, change the outcome, not just of games, but tournaments and Test series. Barry John, Phil Bennett, John Rutherford, Michael Lynagh, Rob Andrew (underestimated in my opinion), Stephen Larkham, Gregor Townsend. All were capable of moments of game-changing genius.
Wilkinson would probably run Carter the closest. Jonny redefined the role of the fly-half in defence and even then I think his impact was underestimated. He was not as natural in terms of running as Carter or Beauden Barrett. But he learned how to step. He taught himself. He worked hard to be able to produce complete performances.
Jonny was not actually fit on that 2005 Lions tour. So comparisons between him and Carter then are not fair. I think a more accurate measure of his greatness came at Toulon in the twilight of his career.
Jonny’s professionalism, the impact he had on his superstar team-mates, the way he captained them to back-to-back European crowns. That is the hallmark of a great player; the impact he has on those around him.
Carter had that in spades. A great defender, he was brave, skilful, quick, a machine with the boot. To average 14 points a Test (he scored 1,598 points in 112 games) is remarkable, however good your team-mates are. And let us not kid ourselves, the All Blacks were, and remain, the greatest team in the world. Carter made them better.
Along with Richie McCaw, he was the catalyst of that team. It was the same for the Crusaders. He lifted them to new heights. Just as Brian O’Driscoll changed what we expected of centres, Carter raised the bar for 10s.
He was the first 10 I ever saw who deployed the “kick to compete” from inside his own 22, getting enough loft on it that four All Blacks would be underneath it. He could pass, run it himself. He controlled games so well.
Barrett is incredible in an attacking sense but I do not think he controls games as well as Carter did. He was found out a bit by the Lions last summer. I thought Sexton and Farrell outplayed him tactically, a genuine first and second five-eighth pairing. I would actually rate Sexton ahead of Barrett as the best 10 in the world at the moment.
Carter, though, invariably got it right. Even in the World Cup final in 2015, when he was near the end and hobbling around on one leg, he was instrumental in New Zealand winning.
In the first half, he kept Australia pinned back on their own 22. And in the second, after Australia had closed to 21-17, he swung the game in New Zealand’s favour.
He landed a dropped-goal he had no right to, to make it a seven-point game again. Then, from the kick-off, he produced a lovely chip from which he tackled Kurtley Beale, inducing a knock-on, a New Zealand scrum and then a penalty, which he converted from 51 metres: 27-17.
In the space of three minutes, Carter had changed the momentum of the game almost single-handedly. Even then he made a fantastic tackle on the wing.
Having missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup final due to injury, Carter needed that win in his final Test. Like all great sportsmen, he delivered. Like Wilkinson, he stayed humble, too.
Whatever happens today in Paris, we should enjoy him while we can – the greatest and most complete 10 of the modern era.