It is a rugby inevitability that fly halfs and kickers occupy the majority of headlines and earn a disproportionate number of man of the match awards. This is even more apparent during World Cups, particularly in the latter stages when matches are historically won by extremely small margins. Hence, the man standing at 10, or the goal-kicker, has an increased chance to be the hero (Wilkinson, Larkham, Stransky etc) or the villain (Mehrtens, Hastings et al).
There is not the same stigma attached to missing a drop goal attempt, especially from long range, as there is a penalty (notably comical Scottish misses from dead in front) but as the stakes become higher in the knockout phase three points will frequently prove the difference however they are scored. Either way, the scorer of these points has a chance to be immortalised in a career-defining moment. It is against this backdrop that I will analyse the Wilkinson-Carter debate.
To my mind, as things stand, Wilkinson must be considered Carter’s superior by simple virtue of steering England to the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago. One moment of brilliance after nearly 120 minutes of rugby in the most pressurised situation of all has guaranteed the Englishman immortality, more so coming as it did after a flawless sequence of play – which he orchestrated.
Since that moment, Carter has been the outstanding back in world rugby, and only his compatriot Richie McCaw rivals him for the most important player in any position. Carter’s performance against the Lions in 2005 would have won lesser teams the series, but still stood out in a team which had dominance in every sphere of the pitch. With Carter at the helm they have ruled the Tri-Nations and the Bledisloe Cup of late, and the very fact that he keeps players as good as Luke Mcallister and Nick Evans on the bench or out of position is testament to his ability. These guys would stroll into any other international team.
Carter is a player at his peak, although his star has arguably dimmed very slightly pre-world cup, thus he must be compared to Jonny when playing at his best. The New Zealander is an immaculate kicker, at least Jonny’s equal in that respect, but both are capable of metronomic accuracy with not much between them.
In open play and for outright skill level, Carter edges it, demonstrably when pulling the strings in that Lions series. Jonny was (and still is) an instinctive player, despite his rigid training regime and constant self-analysis, showing moments of brilliance with the ball in hand, witness the dummy drop-goal, chip and score against the All Blacks in the 2002 Investec Series and even the ‘try’ on the corner flag versus Scotland in this year’s Six Nations.
Wilko also has more of a claim in terms of defence, as Emile Ntamack amongst others will attest. The fact that his destructive technique and lack of sense of self-preservation undoubtedly led to his lengthy catalogue of injuries is not part of this debate. Both players have a fantastic passing game and great vision, allowing them to control a game as they wish, whether pegging the opposition back in their 22 or releasing the wide men.
However, there is a nagging suspicion that, although it is very close, Carter is the overall better player, with more innate ability than Wilkinson and negligible weaknesses. He has also been spared the pain of suffering humiliating international defeats, Wilkinson’s reward for having played in some far inferior sides, from the 1998 Tour of Hell to the team humbled in South Africa over the summer.
The banana skin:
History may eventually crown Carter the king, but until he wins the World Cup for the All Blacks, he cannot be considered pre-eminent.
By Rob Douglas