Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Time to minimise magic first-five's injuries

Daniel Carter after pulling up at training. Photo / Getty Images
Daniel Carter after pulling up at training. Photo / Getty Images

Daniel Carter limping off training grounds has become a worryingly familiar sight. It never used to happen. Carter, for most of his earlier career, appeared to train and play in bubble wrap.

There was the occasional serious injury: a broken leg in 2005, the damaged Achilles in 2009 and, of course, the 2011 groin rip. But he wasn't an athlete riddled with niggles, fiddly muscles that picked inopportune moments to twinge and stiffen.

This year has been different. He tweaked his hamstring during the second test against Ireland and missed the third. A few weeks later he strained his calf and missed the tests against Argentina and South Africa and now he's in danger of missing a fourth international due to a leg problem he picked up at training yesterday.

No one should unduly fret or see these regular injuries as a sign that Carter is beginning the slow descent. Only two weeks ago he was running like a man five years younger, splitting the Scottish defence and looking incredibly like the greatest first-five to walk the planet.

His world hasn't collapsed in just two weeks: he's only 30 for goodness sake, the age at which Frank Bunce made his All Black debut, and there were mitigating circumstances. The University of South Glamorgan training venue was a peat bog: all that heavy mud and all those highly-toned muscles - bad mix.

But why did it have to be Carter's leg that gave way? And that's just the thing; he's what the All Blacks call a red flag athlete. He remains imminently capable of breathtaking rugby all the way through to 2015. But he's also becoming more susceptible to soft tissue injuries. That's partly his age and partly a consequence of the punishment his body has taken in a decade of professional rugby.

His future now might involve more episodes where he feels a twang; that's the sad, inescapable truth. The big donkeys in the tight five can probably run blissfully unaware into their mid-30s that they even have hamstrings and the like, but not the finely crafted works of art like Carter.

A heavy pitch, a cold day and New Zealand's most precious asset will be vulnerable. Maybe it's too much rugby. Maybe Carter needs to be more carefully managed than he already is.

If nature or the rugby gods can't do it any more, maybe it's time for more active strategies. How much Super Rugby does he need to play? The Crusaders have three first-fives in their squad; maybe it's time to keep Carter for the biggest games and a handful of others. If the All Blacks see a heavy training field like the one they encountered in Cardiff, maybe they should tell Carter to stay on the bus.

It's not ideal and All Black coach Steve Hansen will be loath to wrap Carter in cotton wool in such an obvious manner. But what else can he do? Carter's value and importance to the All Blacks hasn't diminished in the last 12 months. It has, if anything, grown and it doesn't get any easier seeing him limp his way back to the sheds two days out from a major test.

- NZ Herald

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