It is nightfall in Auckland and the lights are about to go out on Dan Carter’s career. His three kids are tucked up in bed, and before he pushes the button on retirement, he takes time out to reflect on a rugby journey like no other.
In many ways it has been a long goodbye. The difficulties of Covid-19 deprived him of a grandstand farewell. Instead, he bowed out in a local game for his childhood rugby club, Southbridge, in front of 300 people. Right up until the final kick, he never lost his winning touch. He had come full circle.
‘To finish where it all started was pretty special,’ says Carter.
All Blacks legend Dan Carter has announced his retirement from rugby with immediate effect
He bowed out in a local game for his childhood rugby club, Southbridge, in front of 300 people
He was hailed as the best in the world, outplaying Jonny Wilkinson in the 2005 Lions series
‘I first played there when I was six years old, for the Southbridge Midgets. I was always one of the first to arrive, even on freezing cold South Island mornings, because you would get a Moro chocolate bar and a can of Coke if you helped put out the flags.
‘Southbridge is a little town of about 700 people and all the boys play for the right reasons. They work all week, a lot of farmers, and play for the camaraderie and the beers afterwards. I went back and played a few games with my younger cousin, William, and we won the local Coleman Shield.
‘I didn’t realise at the time that it would be my last game but it was an awesome way to do it. Those guys are not aspiring to be future All Blacks or anything like that. They just play for the love of the game and it was quite refreshing to go back to that.’
DAN REALLY WAS THE MAN…
Points: 1,598 in international rugby – a world record
Conversions: 293 – a world record
Penalties: 281 – a world record
Drop goals: 8
World Cups: 2
Tri-Nations/Championship wins: 9
Points in Super Rugby: 1,708 – a record
Points v The Lions in 2005 second Test: 33 (two tries, four conversions, five penalties)
It was an unassuming finale to a career that has bedazzled the rugby world. Having returned to his roots, Carter’s Coleman Shield medal can now find a small place in his trophy cabinet alongside winner’s medals from World Cups, Lions series, Super Rugby, France’s Top 14 and the Japanese league. Not a bad haul for the kid from the farming town.
‘My drive to be an All Black probably started before I joined Southbridge,’ he says. ‘When I was five the 1987 World Cup was hosted by New Zealand and Australia and John Kirwan scored this magical try against Italy. I was straight out in the backyard trying to copy it.
‘After we won that tournament my dream was to be an All Black. It’s not supposed to happen coming from a little country town but it was always the dream. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 when things just moved really quickly.’
In his early 20s Carter’s status escalated into superstardom. The David Beckham of the rugby world. Carter kept posters of Andrew Mehrtens as a teenager but, following his All Blacks debut in 2003, he soon displaced his idol in the No 10 jersey.
Within two years, he was hailed as the best in the world, outplaying Jonny Wilkinson in the 2005 Lions series.
‘When I played my first cap I was a bright-eyed 21-year-old just thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” he says. ‘After that Test I sat there thinking, “I don’t want this feeling to ever stop”. I didn’t want to be a one-cap, five-cap, 10-cap All Black. I wanted to be an All Black great and I wanted to play for as long as I could. I had this obsession with winning.
‘I wanted to be an All Black great and I wanted to play for as long as I could,’ Carter said
‘In the 2004 autumn series we went up to the Northern Hemisphere and they left Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer behind. They threw me in at No 10 and said, “Right, this is your position if you want it”. All of a sudden it was, “Man, I’ve got to run this team” and I absolutely loved it.
‘Six months later, we had the Lions series and that put me on a world stage. You’re always striving for a perfect game and that second Test was as close as I got. They moved Jonny Wilkinson back to 10 in place of Stephen Jones. I was fortunate to get that opportunity so early in my career. The whole series blew me away.’
That was the fuse that turned Carter into a global brand.
‘There was a funny moment,’ he recalls. ‘Around that time, I got asked to be on some billboards in Jockey underwear. I told Steve Hansen about it and he said, “Do you want to do it?” My first reaction was, “No way!”. Steve said, “Well if you don’t want to do it, just tell them you want five times what they’re offering and they’ll pull out”. I did what he said but 24 hours later they came back and said, “Let’s do it”.
‘Suddenly, I was on these billboards around New Zealand in my boxers.’ I hadn’t told my parents, so they got a bit of a shock when they first saw it, because these billboards were huge!’
New Zealand’s Richie McCaw (left) and team-mate Carter hold the Webb Ellis Cup aloft in 2015
Thirty-eight-year-old Carter won two World Cups with All Blacks in sensational 19-year career
The brand endorsements kept coming. Everyone wanted a piece of the action, from adidas to Louis Vuitton. However, like in every career, there were always darker times waiting around the corner.
For years, the World Cup remained the forbidden fruit. The All Blacks crumbled under the weight of expectation in 2007 before Carter pulled out of the 2011 competition with injury.
‘I was 28 years old and in my prime,’ he says. ‘My body was feeling good and it was a home World Cup. I thought that would be my last one. Mum and Dad were proud as punch.
‘I did a press conference saying how amazing it all was but in training that afternoon I rolled my ankle. I got through the walk through, did some kicking and just dropped to the ground.
Carter sealed move to Racing 92. Post 2015, he lived the globetrotting life, moving to Japan
‘The boys thought I was playing a prank. I knew my World Cup was over. I ripped the adductor off my bone and that was it. It was a dark time and made no sense.’
Carter watched his team-mates win the trophy and the milestones kept coming: World Player of the Year, All Black centurion and, at long last, World Cup winner.
‘I decided to stick in New Zealand for four more years and give it one more crack. There were a few times when I thought I should hang up my boots and I’d come close to joining Racing and Bath. But I’d committed to 2015 being my last World Cup and my last game in an All Blacks jersey, so it was the fairytale finish with them.’
Carter eventually sealed his move to Racing 92. Post 2015, he lived the globetrotting life, eventually finding himself with the Kobe Steelers in Japan.
‘I felt like I could have played there into my 40s,’ he says. ‘I came back to New Zealand because of Covid and that put everything into perspective. I needed to be all in but I just didn’t have that drive any more.
‘I took a few months to chew it over. The more time I spent with my family, the more I realised that I’ve clocked off. Now is the time to commit to that decision. I’ve got three young kids — seven, five and two — with a fourth on the way. It’s about time I started pulling my weight around the house!’
Carter returned to New Zealand due to Covid as ‘that put everything into perspective’
When he gets a spare minute from childcare, Carter, 39 next month, will keep up with the rugby action.
‘I’m not a rugby nut who sits down and watches all weekend… my wife won’t allow that! But I love watching Cheslin Kolbe, Antoine Dupont, Finn Russell. There’s so much talent coming through.’
So, who is Carter’s choice for Lions No 10 this summer?
‘I thought you might drop that one in,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve been following Finn since he joined Racing and he’s been ripping it up. He’s in world-class form at the moment. If he continues that through the Six Nations and into the Lions then I can’t see why you wouldn’t pick him.’
As for the future, Carter has several projects on the horizon, including a programme with Oxford University.
‘There are a lot of emotions sitting here speaking about it,’ he says, ‘but I’m excited about the next chapter.’
This post was first published on DailyMail.