Too old for Super Rugby? Ex-All Blacks coach weighs in on Dan Carter debate
Dan Carter spent long periods of his first training session at the Blues talking tactics with former teammate turned coach Leon MacDonald.
He then completed the session working on kicking skills with Beauden Barrett.
It is here, in these often unseen areas, Wayne Smith believes Carter will exude his most telling influence on the Blues this season.
When it comes to the presence of revered sporting figures in team environments, what they do can shout so loudly that they need not say anything at all.
True professionals lead by example, through their attitude; their commitment to managing their body, attention to game plan detail and skills.
Smith, alongside Kobe Steelers coach Dave Dillon, has seen Carter play more than anyone during the past three years in Japan. He understands exactly how much the Blues stand to gain by simply absorbing Carter’s vision and experience.
“His genius is not just what you see on the field, it’s what he gives off it,” Smith says.
“One of his real values is helping coaches coach and clubs establish a legacy and personal meaning. He’s not just a guy who comes and plays. He throws himself deeply into everything and helps with the other players. To me, that was the huge benefit we got out of him.”
Two years ago, during his last full season in Japan, Carter was named player of the Top League and MVP in the final after guiding Kobe to the title.
Aside from his performances, Smith recounts how Carter blew fellow test stars away while explaining his weekly plan during a team presentation.
“I remember talking to Adam Ashley-Cooper after Daniel had got up and he said he plans on Sunday nights but he’d never done anything to that level and it changed the way he did it. That’s just one example of one of the most experienced players in the world learning off another supremely experienced player. That to me is the value of the man so hopefully he’ll have that sort of effect on the Blues.”
Smith then turns attention to assessing the on-field impact Carter could have, once up to speed.
“People can’t expect to see the Daniel Carter from the 2005 Lions series, but they’ll see something that’s not too far away, from what I have witnessed.”
And with that, Smith does little to damper mounting enthusiasm at Carter’s surprise New Zealand comeback.
Fifteen years on from one of the greatest playmaking performances rugby has witnessed, it is unrealistic to expect this 38-year-old version of Carter to reach those heights again.
Carter has played six games – all this year – in the past 18 months after recovering from neck surgery.
Preparing to put his body on the line in the brutal New Zealand derbies will sure test his slight frame.
And with Barrett expected to settle into the saddle from first five, Carter is likely to first assume a bench role for the Blues, once deemed match fit.
Smith recalls watching Carter perform that same role for Racing 92 in his final French campaign in 2018, before shifting to Japan.
“I remember seeing him come off the bench for them and he changed the game by setting up a couple of tries with his running game.
“He’d be the sort of guy sitting on the bench who would be able to see the game, learn from it and when he comes on have a clear idea of the best way to win it.”
Whatever on-field role he assumes, Smith is confident Carter’s class will shine.
“He’s got something there that drives him to prove himself. Anyone who knows Daniel knows he’ll want to do that with the Blues. He won’t want to be a failure, I’ll tell you that now. He’s one of the most driven guys in that area I’ve ever come across.
“Even though he was finishing with us in Kobe that was more to do with family than anything else. He would love to have kept playing in Japan.
“It’s a good level at Kobe – every week you’re playing against a Matt Giteau or Bernard Foley. A lot of the best 10s in the world are over there so it’s not like it’s a weak competition. You’re playing in front of 24 to 26,000 most weeks so he will have had good preparation for this.
“If the Japanese Top League becomes part of Super Rugby Aotearoa plans in the future people will be surprised just how good the rugby is.
“I’ve got no doubt whatever role he plays he’ll add value.”
Carter’s accolades – three time world player of the year, two World Cup crowns, three Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, two championships in France and one in Japan – suggest he’s always had it made.
But Smith remembers former Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum beating Carter into starting line up of the South Island schools team, and theories he would not become a world-class first five after playing fullback for Canterbury in 2004.
“There was a general feeling at that point that he couldn’t run a game.
“People assume he’s had a golden career and everything has gone well for him. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, and it hasn’t all been based on talent.
“In 2004 Graham Henry said we’re going to take him as a 10 and we’ll take a younger back up because if we take an experienced 10 he’ll probably play the tests ahead of Daniel, and we wanted to see him play.
“That was the first time he really got an extended crack at 10 for the All Blacks and it soon became obvious he was going to be the man for it, but it wasn’t in everyone’s thinking that he was going to be a 10.”
Somewhat ironically Carter made his test debut starting at second five outside Carlos Spencer, the last great Blues playmaker, against Wales in 2003. Now signed as a utility by the Blues, Carter could well find himself at 12 again this season.
Largely due to the increased defensive demands, Smith opted not to use Carter there in Japan.
“It was an option for us but it wasn’t one we used mainly because of his value organising the game from 10. It suits him better, it’s where he’s most comfortable. He’s a strong defender so he can handle 12 but I was pretty loath to put him down that channel. Ten looks after him a bit more physically. He’s almost too brave for his own good.”
Almost five years have passed since Barrett and Carter last played together on that glorious Twickenham afternoon as the All Blacks clinched successive World Cup crowns.
In many ways their roles will be reversed, with Barrett now running the cutter and Carter delivering potential match-winning cameos.
No one envisioned they would ever combine in the same Blues team.
If Smith’s intelligence is anything to go by, we could be in for a treat.
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