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Rugby World Cup Final: Courageous Daniel Carter has the world at his feet

By Chris Hewitt

It is 16 months since Daniel William Carter turned out for Southbridge against Glenmark in a Canterbury Combined Country First Division play-off tie: the first known instance of a village rugby match capturing the attention of an entire nation.

As the game was played in impenetrable fog, nobody could say for sure whether the finest outside-half of the professional era was in decent shape after a long sabbatical, or three stones overweight.

But we know this much: the star turn bought his own drinks that day, not least because his father, Neville, was running the bar and had no intention of serving free beer to anyone.

Spooling forward from June 2014, we can state with a similar degree of certainty that if things go right for Carter in the slightly grander surroundings of Twickenham this weekend, he will never have to buy a drink again.

Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu… a fair few All Blacks will be in swansong territory when they take on the Wallabies in the eighth World Cup final, but they had their moment in the sun when the tournament was played on New Zealand soil four years ago.

Carter was lost in a dark place then - his body broken at the end of the pool stage, his spirit shattered as a result - so it follows that he, rather than McCaw, will be the emotional centrepiece of Saturday's contest.

Romanticism has never meant much to the gods of rugby: had sentiment played the slightest part in their thinking, they would have ensured that the great French full-back Serge Blanco laid hands on the Webb Ellis Cup during the global tournament's early years and seen to it that extraordinary All Black wing Jonah Lomu received proper payment for services rendered in 1995 and 1999.

Only those with the hardest of hearts will begrudge Carter his success if Steve Hansen's (pictured) New Zealand retain the title against their nearest and dearest from across the "ditch".

Anyone muddle-headed enough to dispute the idea that the 33-year-old South Islander towers over his rival No 10s, past and present, need only look at the numbers. He has accumulated 1,579 points in 111 international appearances - well over 300 more than Jonny Wilkinson, who won almost as many caps.

Of the 25 heaviest scorers in Test history, he boasts the highest average yield per game.

Yet there is more to it than that. Far more. Wilkinson scored just seven tries in his long career with England and the Lions. Neil Jenkins of Wales was a little more prolific, claiming 11 touchdowns, while Ronan O'Gara of Ireland was positively electrifying by Jonny-boy standards, crossing the opposition whitewash on no fewer than 16 occasions. Carter? His try tally stands at 29. When it comes to comparisons, there isn't a sensible one to be made.

Even that is not the whole story, as Gregor Townsend points out.

"I see Carter as the Roger Federer of rugby," says the man who performed the No 10 role for the British & Irish Lions when they beat the Springboks in a famous series in 1997.

"He plays the game with the same style, with a special kind of grace, and to my eye he is completely unflappable. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge all the skill and preparation and hard work that underpins it.

"I wrote in a book published a few years ago that he reminded me of a swan: completely at ease on the surface but paddling away like mad under the water."

Townsend knows of what he speaks. He was in the front rank of European outside-halves during his decade-long stint as Scotland's playmaker-in-chief - he called it a day in 2003, just as Carter was embarking on his Test career - and is now considered one of the brightest coaches in these islands, having guided Glasgow to the Pro 12 title last season and been largely responsible for Finn Russell's emergence as an outside-half of genuine Test calibre.

He does not for a second downplay Wilkinson's achievement with England; indeed, he brackets him with Carter and the exquisitely sophisticated Stephen Larkham of Australia as one of the outside-halves who helped push the role beyond its acknowledged boundaries.

But Townsend is clear that Carter is first among equals.

"You can easily argue that Wilkinson's tackling was stronger than that of any outside-half we've ever seen, and that his kicking was just as accomplished," he says.

"You can make out a case for Larkham as the finest attacking runner of the three. But in all-round terms, Carter has performed, and continues to perform, at an astonishing level. I don't think we'll see a No 10 of such intelligence, one equipped with such an array of skills, for a very long time.

"He's incredibly good at seeing the wider picture as it develops during a game and he's crafty with it: he often spends the early part of a match making simple passes and taking routine decisions, deliberately not engaging the opposition in any meaningful sense, before attacking with an inside ball or a half-break the moment he spots the first sign of defensive drift.

"That comes from a combination of instinct, composure and experience. People talk about the '10,000-hour rule' of greatness. Carter must have 20,000 hours in the bank by now.

"And when I look at his kicking game, it's all about hurting the opposition.

"There's so much thought behind it, together with a pretty devastating degree of accuracy.

"His kicks either find grass, or they're contestable in the air."

There are plenty of outside-halves in the sport who spell the word "team" with a capital "I". Carter is not one of them. According to McCaw, his close colleague: "It's always the team that comes first with him - a pretty special trait, when you think how good a player he's been for so many years."

Just this week, Carter confessed in an interview with the American broadcaster CNN that the injury setback midway through the last World Cup left him feeling dangerously low.

"That tournament was really tough for me," he said.

"As a team we performed really well and to win was exceptional, but on a personal level… to be knocked out just before the play-off stage with such a serious injury" - he pretty much wrecked his groin during goal-kicking practice - "was really hard to take. I was forever asking the 'why' question. Why me? Why now?"

All this fits in with Townsend's sense of the situation.

"We thought that 2011 was his moment, didn't we?" he recalls.

"We thought that by missing out then, he'd possibly missed out for good."

"So the way he's performing now tells you a lot about his strength of character and the depth of his determination.

"He's a special player."

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