Sir Fred Allen, our only undefeated All Black coach, was unequivocal about Dan Carter: "He's the best first-five I've ever seen."

This week Carter himself - still as grounded and relaxed as you ever hope someone who grew up in rural Southbridge in Canterbury but who went on to make millions of dollars playing a sport he loves to be - gently took all the air out of the "Carter for the World Cup" talk that's been swirling online.

Recovering from neck surgery, All Black great Dan Carter's playing future is uncertain.

At 37, with his neck in a brace for the next three months, you can see why he found the idea of an All Black recall pretty amusing, but on the other hand, when you are, as I believe Carter is, the best first-five world rugby has seen in the past 50 years, it's easy to see why fans might dream of a miracle return.


Why does Carter rate so highly? Because at his peak he was the complete rugby player.

I once asked 1987 World Cup winner Warwick Taylor if he could spot a weakness in Carter's play. Taylor laughed. "The only thing you would have a worry about was whether he was too brave. When you watch his defence on his channel [near a breakdown or scrum], he's entirely without fear. He'll take on much bigger men, so you worry about him getting injured. Thank God his technique is so good, so he stops them dead, and doesn't get hurt."

The great beauty of Carter the player was a gift he shared with Welshman Barry John, Argentinian Hugo Porta, and Australian Stephen Larkham. They all seemed to have the luxury of reading the game with a nerveless ease denied to mere mortals.

It's a talent that was there from the time Carter first started playing for Canterbury in 2002. After a Ranfurly Shield game in Christchurch in August of that year I wrote, "You will hear a lot about Dan Carter, a 20-year-old five-eighths, over the next few weeks. You hesitate to put too much pressure on such a young man, by praising him too lavishly. But when you see someone who can step off both feet, throws a pass with laser beam accuracy, and scores a try by fending one tackler off with the right hand, the next with the left, and then swerves round the last defender, it's very hard to keep quiet about it."

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter with the Webb Ellis Trophy as they celebrate winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Photosport
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter with the Webb Ellis Trophy as they celebrate winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Photosport

After the game I was speaking with Leon MacDonald, and mentioned how impressive the fends for Carter's try had been, basically knocking, as the fends did, two defenders on their backsides. MacDonald smiled, and offered for someone as careful with his opinions as he is, huge praise. "Yes, he's surprisingly strong isn't he?"

Let's look at the areas a first-five needs to excel, and compare Carter to other greats.

TACTICAL APPRECIATION. Barry John was possibly the smartest reader of a game I've ever seen, but on the 1971 Lions tour, when he and the team achieved almost mythical status in Britain for winning the series with the All Blacks, John operated from a position of huge safety, way back in the pocket behind his halfback Gareth Edwards. From there he could punt the ball with extraordinary precision, and in the first test in 1971 he ended the stellar career of All Black fullback Fergie McCormick, always dropping the ball just out of McCormick's frantic reach. But if there's a photograph of John making a tackle on that tour, it'd be as rare as rocking horse droppings. In today's game, with phase after phase of attacking with the ball in hand, when all players need to be sound tacklers, John, in the way Quade Cooper has, would become a weakness for his side, rather than a strength.

Carter? His best test was the second against the 2005 Lions, won 48-18, which he scored 33 points, and played more like a god than a man. But the final of the 2015 World Cup was possibly an even better example of his footballing brain, steering the All Blacks to a 34-17 win with the precision of a surgeon.

GOAL KICKING. Jonny Wilkinson booted England all the way to a World Cup title in 2003, and his kicking, based on merciless, obsessive training, was brilliant. But the price the poor bloke paid for technically probably being the best goal kicker of all was huge. In 2011 he'd reveal that he would get so frustrated if his kicking practice wasn't going well that once "I was so livid, before I know it I am sinking my teeth into my hand, trying to bite right through the skin between my thumb and index finger."

Carter? He was damn near as relentless as Wilkinson with his kicking in a game, but a key difference is that the idea of Carter self harming if training wasn't going well makes those who know him well laugh out loud. That equitable temperament also led to Carter being a kicker who could start a game with a couple of wayward shots, and then haul himself back to accuracy, rather than surrendering to the mental demons golfers battling with putting call "the yips".

England's Jonny Wilkinson (right) and New Zealand's Dan Carter (left) battle for a loose ball during an Investec Challenge Series 2009 match at Twickenham. Photo / Getty
England's Jonny Wilkinson (right) and New Zealand's Dan Carter (left) battle for a loose ball during an Investec Challenge Series 2009 match at Twickenham. Photo / Getty


His Wallaby teammates called Stephen Larkham Bernie, after the corpse in the black comedy movie Weekend At Bernie's. But while he might have looked almost wraith like, there was never a loose forward big or mean enough to even remotely intimidate him. In 1999 he never flinched as the French in the World Cup final tried to unsettle him, and the Wallabies won, 35-12. The Wallabies got to that final thanks to a Larkham drop kick that won the semifinal with South Africa. His successful, and rare, kick for goal was hugely amusing to his fellow players, who knew (I am not making this up) that his eyesight was so bad he could barely make out the goal posts.

Then there was Hugo Porta, the rock solid Puma first-five of the 1970s. He was late charged in a 1979 test with the All Blacks in Dunedin in 1979, prop John Ashworth's forearm smacking into Porta's jaw. Porta played out the rest of the match with the same clinical precision he showed in an international career that spanned an amazing 19 years.

Carter? We all saw how his tackling never faltered, and he took that fearlessness into a freedom when he ran that has been passed on to the new generation of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga. If you're old enough you'll know that Carter's running carried on a break from tradition dating back to the way Earle Kirton ran the ball from first-five for Fred Allen's great All Black side that toured Britain and France in 1967.

Which brings us back to what Allen, on several occasions, said to me when we'd catch up during the last decade of his life. "You can't go past this boy Carter. The best I've seen."

For mine, if Carter was Fred's top pick, you won't hear a word of dissent from me.