All Blacks: Carter's star power on the line

First-five will have to deliver impeccable performance to prove he deserves to hold on to No 10 jersey

Finally back in his All Black No 10 jersey, Daniel Carter faces the entirely new challenge of knowing he needs to deliver an emphatic performance tonight to stay in it.

That's supposedly always been the case but Carter, having been blessed by angels, has never been subjected to genuine selection pressure since he shifted to first-five late in 2004.

Even when he was hopping about on one leg in the ill-fated 2007 World Cup quarter-final, the selectors backed him.

The sight of a pale Graham Henry saying Carter had been ruled out of the last World Cup's knockout rounds and the angst and near panic that followed were confirmation there hasn't been a No10 remotely close in ability.

That was then - a time when there was serious doubt about whether the All Blacks could win without Carter.

Whenever he was injured between 2004 and 2011 it was always shut the eyes and hope. The All Blacks scrambled through his broken leg absence in 2005 with Luke McAlister and Leon MacDonald. They weren't so lucky in 2009 when Carter missed the first six tests and they lost three.

A one-point victory in Sydney in 2010 when he was having ankle surgery merely highlighted the gulf between him and Aaron Cruden and when he didn't go to South Africa in 2011, the All Blacks lost.

They played 27 tests without Carter (after his debut) between June 2003 and the eve of the 2011 World Cup. They lost six of those - a 78 per cent win ratio as opposed to the 89 per cent win ratio when he did play.

But the World Cup changed everything. Somehow the All Blacks scrambled to victory: they felt the fear and did it anyway. They won the biggest three games in recent history without Carter and are no longer held hostage by their own doubts when he's not there.

As proof of that, the statistics of the past two years tell a different story.

Since Carter's groin ripped in Wellington on the eve of the pool clash with Canada, he has played only 10 of 23 tests. The All Blacks have won 21 of those - their only defeat and draw coming when Carter played.

Which means he runs out tonight no longer cast as the knight in shining armour brought in to save the day. His mission between now and the end of the year when he signs off for a six-month sabbatical is more subtle, more challenging and open for debate: he has to prove the All Blacks are a discernibly better team when he plays.

It needs to be an evening of quintessential Carter: immaculate goal-kicking, impeccable decision-making, effortless passing, crunching defence and, probably most important, undeniable signs of his running ability making a difference.

The All Blacks' new attacking game impressed against Australia yet also hinted there is plenty more to get out. Everyone plays a part - no one, though, is more influential in determining the tempo, rhythm and cohesion than the first-five. This is where Carter's presence will be judged - will he take the All Blacks to the next level? Will they be 80 minutes of relentless accuracy - playing in all the right places, doing all the right things?

What everyone would like to avoid is uncertainty whether he is being picked by reputation rather than by right. Cruden is too good for thatto be his fate.

There is, then, genuine pressure on Carter for the first time in his All Black career, but in typical laconic fashion, he gives the impression it's unlikely to have any great effect on him.

"You always want to play well every time you put the black jersey on," he said. "I knew I could have played better last time than I did [third test against France]. The motivation grows when you have to sit out a couple of tests like I have.

"You never take your position for granted. It gives you confidence to see we have the depth there [first-five].

"Those guys have made the most of their opportunities. It's now about me doing the same. I'll back my experience. I've been in this situation before."

- NZ Herald

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