Dan Carter, the All Blacks superhero to the end
LONDON (AP) Dan Carter used to have a wardrobe full of superhero costumes. He and former All Black Ali Williams loved dressing up in them. ''Sounds weird, I know,'' Carter said sheepishly on Friday.
The first costume he bought was the Phantom's, which was ironic because the comic hero known as ''The Ghost Who Walks,'' perfectly describes Carter in 2013 and 2014, when one of the great rugby careers was in jeopardy of fading away under a welter of injuries.
Two of the worst were the Achilles strain during his 100th test in 2013, and a broken right leg in the Super Rugby final in 2014. When he was fit, the All Blacks picked him, but he struggled to play two tests in a row.
He's played in less than half of the All Blacks' tests since they won the 2011 final, which he watched on crutches after tearing his groin in the pool stage. Meanwhile, the likes of Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, and Colin Slade were giving performances in the No. 10 jersey that were making Carter less and less missed.
It's hard to believe now, but the knives were out for him less than three months ago. Carter was as much to blame in an All Blacks side that malfunctioned badly in the Rugby Championship-deciding loss to Australia in Sydney, and his off-night followed the assured debut of Lima Sopoaga in the win over South Africa in Johannesburg.
All Blacks selector Grant Fox would later reveal that Carter's place in the Rugby World Cup squad hinged on the second match against the Wallabies. It panned out, and weeks later, the 33-year-old Carter finds himself lauded on the eve of the final of the tournament that drove him to keep coming back from 10 injuries in the last four years.
His maiden final in his fourth Rugby World Cup on Saturday will be his 112th and last outing as an All Black. After the tournament, he's going back to France to take up a three-year contract with Racing Metro. He's not nostalgic about his All Blacks career, not yet anyway.
''That's not something I've thought about, the past, or what may happen after the final whistle,'' he said at Twickenham. ''This week has been purely on what I can do for this team. It's not about me, or the guys playing their last game, it's about this 2015 All Blacks side that has been working extremely hard all year.
''I just want to go out there and play the best I can for my teammates. This is the kind of challenge this team loves. I just want to make sure I do my part to not let my teammates down.''
There's little chance of that. In each match, Carter's influence has grown, raising more references to his superlative form against the 2005 British and Irish Lions. In the quarterfinals, there was the break and backflip pass for a Julian Savea try, and in the semifinals, a masterclass of vision and goalkicking.
Carter said a deep love for the All Blacks kept him going in the dark times.
''There were times I thought it might be the end, but I got through, and where I am today I'm pretty grateful for the coaches for sticking by me,'' he said. ''It's been a big part of my motivation to repay their trust in me.''
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said Carter has repaid that trust over and over, and the result of the final will have no effect.
''He's enhanced the jersey,'' Hansen said. ''As an All Black, one of the greatest things you can do is sit back and say I've improved this jersey from when I picked it up. In his position, that's pretty remarkable when you think about Fox, (Earle) Kirton, (Andrew) Mehrtens, and so forth. When those guys left, they all said he wouldn't be replaced, but a little fella from Southbridge has done that, and done it in a nice way. He's a pretty humble bloke.''
Carter has 29 tries in his world-record tally of 1,579 test points, but Hansen said he's advanced the flyhalf role by the strength of his tackling. That ignores another great kicker and tackler in England's Jonny Wilkinson, but the point was made.
As for those superhero costumes, Carter had to remove them when his wife, Honor, wanted to make the room into a nursery with the pending birth of their first son in early 2013. He gave the collection to a friend, but there's still one costume that makes him feel, and look, like a superhero.
It's colored all black.