Dan Carter (Getty Images)
London – The booing was just starting to get louder when Dan Carter finally moved, swung his left boot, and struck the conversion between the posts.
Given a second chance to convert Jerome Kaino’s early try after South Africa winger Bryan Habana sprinted out to attempt a charge-down too early, Carter took his sweet time hard up against the far right touchline. The cheers from New Zealand fans drowned out the booing before the touch judges’ flags went up. Seemingly not so significant at the time, his 290th career conversion turned out to be critical after New Zealand beat South Africa 20-18 in the Rugby World Cup semifinals on Saturday.
“It was a pretty important kick looking back now,” he admitted.
But just about everything Carter did was important: His dropped goal to open the second half underscored the All Blacks’ control; he knocked the ball from South Africa flanker Schalk Burger’s grasp to start the counterattack for the second try; he threw the next-to-last pass in both All Blacks tries; plus his only penalty goal pushed them five points ahead in the last quarter. He missed the posts only once, hitting the near upright, but tallied 10 points to surpass Andrew Mehrtens and Grant Fox and become New Zealand’s all-time leading World Cup scorer.
Of his first dropped goal in a test in three years, he said, “Luckily, it flew off the boot pretty well.”
But luck doesn’t really play a part in Carter’s career. Sweet timing does, though.
His place in New Zealand’s squad for the Rugby World Cup was touch and go. Lima Sopoaga impressed the All Blacks selectors with a composed debut in the win over South Africa in Johannesburg in July, while Carter, the all-time leading scorer in test rugby, had had a patchy Super Rugby season and was underwhelming in the Rugby Championship-decider against Australia, a loss in Sydney.
Only after a commanding performance in the return test against Australia in Auckland were the selectors convinced that Carter was worthy of a fourth World Cup. They have stuck by him since, and watched him elevate his game in each match to the point where his form is being compared with the time when he was a game-changer a decade ago.
“I don’t know if he’s in the best form of his life, but he’s in the form we need him to be in right now,” New Zealand backs coach Ian Foster said.
“For someone who has gone through what he has the last two or three years, and to climb back in and control the team the way he has, is outstanding. When you see him out there now, playing freely, and running around with a smile on his face, it’s outstanding.”
Since the last Rugby World Cup, Carter has endured 10 separate injuries, including an Achilles strain during his 100th test in 2013, and a broken right leg in the Super Rugby final in 2014.
He kept coming back because his previous three World Cups didn’t end well. In 2003, he was the backup flyhalf and on the sideline when the team fell in the semifinals. He was replaced because of injury in the 2007 quarterfinal defeat, and tore an adductor in his groin while practicing kicks in the 2011 pool stage. This was his first World Cup semifinal, and now he’s going to the final.
He said: “You should have seen the smile on my face at the end of the game.”