Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: No replacing the greatest

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It's a smart move giving Carter more time off to keep him in the game and at a peak. Photo / Getty Images
It's a smart move giving Carter more time off to keep him in the game and at a peak. Photo / Getty Images

It still happens. The great one, Dan Carter, blows a fetlock and a nation's collective heartbeat goes into spasm.

It shouldn't worry us as much these days. After all, this tour and test matches earlier this year have proved that, finally, the All Blacks have found decent cover in Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett after all that angst with Colin Slade and Stephen Donald.

But it isn't anxiety over replacements for Carter that cause the quickening heartbeat when he withdraws late, as he did for this morning's test against Wales. It's the knowledge that something we all take for granted - his greatness and presence in an All Black side - may be gone one day soon.

He's 30 now, a time when the injuries start to become more common and troublesome. However, he has some unfinished business. He is setting his cap at the next World Cup in 2015; World Cups are the only blemish on a career otherwise spotless. Injury meant he wasn't there for the meaningful bit last year. We all know what happened in 2007, when he hobbled off the field midway through the second half of that shock loss to France after, for him, a less than spectacular performance.

The TV pictures of his anguished face on the sideline remain a clear memory years later.

He was in a third World Cup too, the 2003 version and another shock, provided by the Aussies that time. Carter was in the squad and played in pool matches and the quarter-final win over South Africa - but he was a newbie then, playing at second five-eighths.

That is not a World Cup record that can be displayed proudly on a mantelpiece. Even though he has a winner's medal from the last one, Carter will have a strong sense of unfinished business; he will almost certainly regard the World Cup as a trophy whose polished curves do not yet adequately reflect his greatness - although he, for sure, would never put it in those words.

He'll be 33 - not, in itself, an age that predicates against Carter's involvement in 2015. But the passage of time and the high-paced, high-intensity, highly physical sport that is modern international rugby do not sit easily together. Injuries become not only more frequent but more debilitating. It's a smart move giving Carter more time off to keep him in the game and at a peak.

It will be fascinating to see if he can ward off the blows that he will almost certainly suffer from the above and the increasing pressure from those pushing for his place.

My bet is that he will. He is that good. The best I have ever seen, in any position.

Two years ago, in this newspaper, rugby writer Gregor Paul and I had a print debate about the world's best player. Gregor chose Richie McCaw, I plumped for Carter. Here's what I wrote then, and it's still true now: "Scoring a try, kicking goals, dropping goals, kicking from hand, making a break, setting up a try ... He has a fend, a sidestep and that uncoachable ability to have time on the ball, to find space and to produce a piece of irresistible brilliance that can decide a match."

Here's what Gregor wrote in 2005, after watching Carter demolish the touring Lions almost single-handedly, in a two-try display of such class that James McOnie, then compiling the player ratings for the Herald on Sunday, gave him an 11 out of 10: "Daniel Carter went from world class to out of this world ... Carter, in particular, ran with the confidence and agility of a man who knows that he is rugby's new king. When Jonny Wilkinson left the field in the second half, he did so with a nod to Carter, as if to acknowledge the New Zealander's ascension to the Englishman's vacant throne. Carter's second try, which put the game out of reach of the Lions, was quite marvellous to watch. He ran so well, most in the stadium were sure it was in fact Rico Gear who had blasted past (Shane) Williams, chipped over Josh Lewsey and then dived on the loose ball."

Someone gave Carter 10 out of 10 in players ratings for his admittedly fine performance against Scotland on this tour. But ... naaah ... he threw an intercept pass to gift Scotland their first try, even though what followed was straight out of the Brilliance Cupboard. You'd have to dock him a mark for that. The real point, however, is that he is still doing it, seven years later - the fend, the sidestep, the innate ability to find time and space.

It now remains to be seen whether Cruden and/or Barrett will push the great man, maybe even to the extent that one of them becomes the preferred and not the deferred.

Cruden has the upper hand at the moment and has improved so much from the hesitant young man clearly not ready for test rugby that he must be given a show of taking his game a further notch up. However, there is a sneaking feeling that Barrett could prevail. A bigger man, he has excellent kicking from hand (though his goalkicking may not be quite as consistent as Cruden's), a Carter-like defence and a break-making ability that holds promise.

But can they unseat King Carter? Or will it be time or an injury that eventually finishes the career of a man who has now played 93 tests, scoring 29 tries and 1381 points - the highest scorer in the history of the game?

His greatness is captured in the fact that we all take that deep, inwards breath when we hear he is injured and the thought flicks across our minds, even if only for an instant, that his era might be about to end. Not before 2015. Please.

- Herald on Sunday

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