For the love of the game

As an occasion, it would have been as memorable as it had seemed unlikely. At 38 years old, Dan Carter widely considered to be the greatest first five-eight ever to play rugby, taking the field for the Blues alongside Beauden Barrett, the game's current MVP.

It was too good to be true though: Dan Carter's 'old man calves' kept him off the field for several weeks, denying fans the chance to see this legend in action again.

But then Super Rugby Aotearoa's 'finale' at Eden Park  featuring Carter's former side, the Crusaders - fell victim to the COVID-19 resurgence. It could still happen in 2021, however. Because if Dan Carter is sure about one thing, it is that he is not yet ready to hang up his boots.

Dan Carter interview | 66 Magazine

For the love of the game.

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Once you say you're retired, you're retiredI don't know what is around the corner, so if I commit to retirement it means I can't play of something were to pop up in the future,” says Dan Carter, confronting his undimmed love for the game of rugby, regardless of circumstance. 

If I was ready to stop, I wouldn't have the appetite to do things like help out the Blues or go back and play club rugby. There's still a love for the game and going out there and competing, and as long as I've got that I don't want to make 'that' announcement. 

Carter did retire in 2015, but only as an All Black. 

For me, it's not about trying to get another contract, or playing international rugby; I'm quite content with the career I had. I was able to finish on my terms at an international level.

He is still in hot demand around the world, although this prince of players is on pauper's pay. 

"I'm probably the lowest played professional rugby player in New Zealand right now. It's not about the money though. It's more about being able to enjoy being part of a team, enjoying the competitiveness and basically my love for the game.” 

Auckland is home for the Carter clan nowadays, raising his three sons alongside wife Honor, a former Blackstick hockey player. It was the desire to spend more time with family that helped Blues coach Leon MacDonald lure him in as cover for the injured Steve Perofeta. 

“It took a bit of convincing to be honest because I’m a Cantabrian through and through, and a staunch Crusader. But being able to do what I love again, and to be able to go home to my family each night was very attractive to me,” Carter explains. 

The toughest part of the whole thing was telling Crusaders coach Scott Robertson. He, like MacDonald, is a former Crusaders and All Black teammate. Carter can still recall the conversation. 

“I told him that Leon's talked me into helping out the Blues. He's like “WHAT!?” I then explained the reasons why and he said, “I totally understand”.” 

Carter admits that at the time, he never expected to take the field. 

"It wasn't about me getting on the pitch. It was about helping the team grow and sharing my experience with the younger guys and the leadership group. I can't help myself though: I missed rugby,” he says of the moment he put his boots on. The hunger was still there. 

And New Zealand had missed Dan Carter too. News of his first game back led sports bulletins around the country. 

“I thought I could just sneak down there, put on the blue and white hoops for Southbridge and get through a game. I didn't mind that there was added attention around that game because it does amazing things for community rugby.” 

There has never been a time that Carter hasn't been big news. He has been rugby's poster boy, and a genuine (but also slightly uncomfortable) celebrity. 

“Even to this day, when I’m rubbing shoulders with celebrities, there is still that feeling of “What the hell am I doing here?” I'm never one hundred percent comfortable in those situations, but at the same time, I enjoy doing different things.” 

Since his breakthrough season for the Crusaders and All Blacks in 2003, Carter has played a pivotal role in countless Super Rugby and All Black successes. He set multiple records in his international career, finishing as the highest scorer of all time. He was also named IRB Player of the Year three times.  

The first time he received the honour was in 2005, helped in no small part by a performance dubbed the 'Perfect 10.' Carter has always been reluctant to talk about his successes. Still, this game he freely admits was his greatest performance. However, at the time he had no idea just how great. 

“It  was really weird. You're just kind of in the zone, and everything's going well. I was just in that state of mind. I came off the field, and there was a bit more media than normal wanting to talk to me, and they're asking “Do you know how many points you scored? Did you know you broke records?” I didn't know how many points I'd scored. Someone said 33; I thought that's pretty good, I'm happy with that.” 

This is typical Carter: the points scoring machine who refuses to keep a tally. At a recent school quiz night, he was stumped by the question 'Dan Carter scored 1598 points during his international career. Has he scored more penalties or conversions?'

He drops his head in resignation: “I didn't know the answer. In my defence, it was pretty close.” 

It is close: 293 conversions and 281 penalties. For the record, Carter guessed the wrong answer. 

However, there was one number that haunted Carter for the bulk of his career: zero. From his first taste of Rugby World Cup disappointment in 2003, he was desperate not to finish his international career without being a World Champion.  

After coming up short in 2007, the All Blacks took the lessons learned from the loss to France in Cardiff and were the form team of the 2011 tournament. However, Carter's hopes of a Cup redemption were shattered when he tore a groin muscle while preparing to captain the All Blacks pool match against Canada. 

“It brought me to tears, which doesn't happen very often. I knew it was serious but there is still a part of you that hopes you will be able to play. Even though, in the back of my mind, I know this was serious because I heard the snap,” he recalls. 

By the time 2015 rolled around, nothing was going to stop Carter; including an invitation to try to join the NFL as the New England Patriots' kicker. The chance to be part of the team which won three Super Bowls in five years was tempting, but Carter wanted to lift the Web Ellis trophy. 

“In my mind, nothing could stop me, that's how focused and confident I was. I felt all the setbacks I had had going back to 2003 when I was a young kid who didn't really know the seriousness of World Cups. I soon learned how badly I wanted a World Cup, and for it to be taken away from me at the next two World Cups – especially when I was supposed to be at my prime – was pretty gut-wrenching.” 

The result was the perfect end to his All Black career, winning the cup, and named the World Player of the Year. Carter had dreamed about this moment since he first held a rugby ball. 

The Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle for any rugby player. You know the world is watching you at the home of rugby at Twickenham. You know it's your last game. I'd done the work and I was confident. I knew it was one last chance to perform.

Stints in France and Japan have been financially lucrative. However, Carter feels this year's return home has been his best move. 

“I've been lucky, and New Zealand Rugby has looked after me. I've had some great opportunities overseas, so it's not about money anymore; it's about giving back to the sport and New Zealand Rugby.” 

Would he play for free? 

“Yes. I almost am right now.” 

Words by Shaun Summerfield

Photos by Vinesh Kumaran & Supplies

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