When Carter’s move to Perpignan was first announced, I thought about writing my thoughts on this, but at that point I thought that the exodus of players from New Zealand would weaken their national team at least a little bit. Given recent results this doesn’t appear to be the case…
After brushing aside the home nations in much the same way a lioness swats away one of her cubs when it annoys her, the All Blacks head for home this week. However, having a played key part in these routs, Mr Daniel Carter will not be joining them and instead is bound for France (ironically the one major European nation the Kiwis haven’t played on this tour). When this deal was first announced the general impression seemed to be that the NZRFU were making a desperate attempt to keep control of one of their star players. Initially I thought that this may be the case but over the past few months I’ve come to a rather different conclusion.
Fundamentally, the Kiwis have a problem. They base their whole national team and domestic structure on having predominantly New Zealand players playing in New Zealand. This has come under threat more and more in recent years as the financial firepower of European clubs has come into play. So the first tick in the box for the sabbatical concept comes in allowing the players to get in on the northern hemisphere cash whilst New Zealand retain at least partial control on a key asset. It will be interesting to see how they handle Carter when he returns. I suspect that they will ease him back into the Tri-Nations gradually, particularly after such a long stint of uninterrupted rugby.
Now I may be reading too much into this, but I think there is another motive for the NZRFU. Following their controversial exit from the World Cup much was made of how France and England thrived once the matches became of Heineken Cup like intensity. Before I rile the southern hemisphere readers, I must stress that although I haven’t been to a Super 14 semi or final I find it hard to believe they lack anything in intensity or atmosphere but it cannot hurt to give a player such as Carter exposure to the Heineken Cup competition, a taste of the French Top 14 grind and how European opponents react in big games. Even though the next World Cup is in New Zealand, they cannot want to miss any opportunity to give the players any experiences that may help them when this tournament comes around.
This may not seem much different to simply allowing the players to go off for a couple of years on their own but Graham Henry’s comments on Luke McAllister reveal a mindset that European rugby blunt New Zealanders when they are overseas.
When asked of the rise of Luke McAlister in the UK, he said: “I think it will be good for him as an individual and when he returns to these islands he’ll be a well-rounded person. But I don’t know if he’s going to be a better rugby player. Maybe those experiences of playing in those countries will help but whether it’s going to help his rugby development, I’m not sure.”
Whilst I think Henry is perhaps over-exaggerating the situation slightly the method becomes clear – get Carter over to Europe, let him get the experience both on and off the field, then get him back well ahead of the next World Cup so he is fully integrated into the All Blacks set-up when it comes around. Perhaps (and only perhaps) as a more rounded player and person and before he has been blunted by the technically deficient European game (and let’s face it, it is at the moment).
My only surprise is that they haven’t encouraged more players to do it, particularly as Richie McCaw’s girlfriend is one of the dancers on Strictly Come Dancing (a sad sign of how I spend my Saturday nights now I’m afraid). Personally I’d like to see some of England’s players go the other way. I was always keen for the likes of Dallaglio and Jason Robinson to have a crack in the southern hemisphere and I think it would do Haskell, Cipriani, Rees etc the world of good.
If nothing else, watching Carter play is a normally a treat and seeing him involved in an epic Heineken Cup clash would be awesome. Despite my argument it seems that the NZRFU are struggling to let go given that they’ve refused to release him for this week’s Heineken Cup – Perpignan cannot be chuffed that he’s not available for a massive game. But for the week after and beyond let’s just hope that Perpignan abandon the negative approach they have taken recently and give Carter a glittering stage on which to perform.
By Kemlo Longstaff