Dan Carter book: 'I could barely walk the day after RWC quarterfinal against France'
Abridged extract from Dan Carter's final-year diary - recorded via WhatsApp call at The Oatlands Park Hotel, a day after the All Blacks' 20–18 semifinal victory over the Springboks at Twickenham in the Rugby World Cup.
Leading up to the last round of pool play we repeated the line over and over: that it didn't really matter whether we played France or Ireland. We probably meant it at the time, but as soon as we found out we were playing France, my immediate thought was of 2007, and losing the quarterfinal to them 20–18.
I didn't talk about it in the media — I didn't want to fuel the fire. But at the same time it was hard not to think about it. There was a big part of me that wanted to right the wrongs of 2007, and felt this was a perfect opportunity. The way I saw it, there were two ways we could go about it: either let it daunt you and worry that it might happen again; or walk towards it, embrace it, view it as the opportunity I've wanted ever since that day in 2007 — playing the same team, in the same stadium . . . but this time succeeding.
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It wasn't just the opposition sharpening our minds. There was some genuine fear early in that week, because we hadn't been performing throughout the Rugby World Cup. In patches we had played okay, but never across a full 80 minutes. Between that and the parallels with 2007, there was a real edge to training.
To help our head game we met with Ceri Evans, the psychologist. He showed us a clip of a cliff diver aiming for a little hole in a rock. We talk about do or die, but it's very literal for those extreme sportsmen: if they get it wrong, they're dead! They have to be so focused on the moment. The talk made us recalibrate and really focus, again, on the process, rather than the outcome.
You don't know exactly what drives a performance. But for whatever reason — the opponent, the venue, Ceri's talk, or genuine fear about the way we'd been playing — everything just flowed. We played brilliantly. We learnt from 2007 and 2003, when we had looked too far ahead, that nothing was guaranteed after that quarterfinal. So, we saw this as our final. That's all we had guaranteed in this tournament. Afterwards we were just so happy to give ourselves another week.
For 24 hours after beating the French we let the performance wash over us, allowed ourselves to reflect on one of the best games we've had as a group. But come Monday, after the review, we put a full stop on the quarterfinal, and started looking forward to South Africa. It was actually really hard, because as the week went on we were still hearing about it: from fans; from friends; from the media. It was challenging at times to forget about it and concentrate on the Springboks.
I had bigger issues than concentration to worry about, though. Just before halftime in the French game, I developed a sore right knee — affecting my plant foot. I told the training staff at halftime, but never considered coming off. All the same, it was uncomfortable, and compared to the first half I was pretty quiet. I thought it was just a bruise, even after I started cramping up in that calf towards the end. After the game I iced it and took it easy, thinking it would be right in the morning.
The next day, though, I could barely walk. Monday was as bad, if not worse. By Tuesday I thought I wasn't going to play the semi. I caught up with the team's medical staff, and they realised I'd tweaked my MCL [medial collateral ligament]. I was given a cortisone injection, and didn't train at all on Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday was our day off, so I focused on getting right for Thursday, and figured I'd know then what my chances of running out that weekend were.
Throughout that time I was fighting to avoid thinking the worst — that all my training and rehab was for nothing, that I'd miss out on the big games again. I spent time with Gilbert, which helped. He broke my day into two-hour blocks: the first would be gym and recovery; the next spent doing media — it gave me control and something on which to focus.
Thursday came, and with it two training sessions. The morning was really light. I had a wee run around, and it felt a lot more stable. But I still wasn't confident on it — between the pain and the messages it sent to my brain I couldn't play with the necessary freedom. After my morning run I decided to get a local anaesthetic in my knee, just to take the pain away. That allowed me to — finally — get in a good, hard training session, which was a huge confidence booster.
With my leg better — or at least much improved — it was time to focus properly on our opponents. There is just something about the Springboks. They're such tough adversaries, very similar to us, and they play with so much heart and spirit.
The game was incredibly tight, but I never felt worried. It's easier to play than to watch those games. I remember having to watch the last World Cup and, honestly, it sucks. You just can't enjoy it when it's so close and so tense. But when you're actually out there playing, you have control: the outcome is in your hands. Even when it was close, even when we were down, I was confident we'd find a way to win. It's something this team has done time and again these past four years, so despite the pressure of the semi-final, I knew we'd figure it out. And we did.
I don't like to show a lot of emotion, but after the last whistle I couldn't help it. I was just so pumped to reach the final. One step closer to a dream of mine coming true. It meant we had the opportunity to do something no other team has done before. Something we've talked about for four years: repeating as champions. It has always been in the distance, but to finally be one game away was such an immense relief.
Last year was such a challenging one for me. Lingering injuries and elusive form combined to make me doubt my ability to ever reach this point. There were so many times when I wondered if I'd made a mistake by re-signing, that my body wouldn't allow me to fulfil this dream, one I've nurtured for a dozen years now.
But to be in this situation, my body feeling great, playing good rugby — I'm just so grateful. All the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. Now I just really want to finish the job — not only for myself and what I've been through, but for this team and what we've created and achieved over the last four years.
It will be defined in just one game.
- Extracted from Dan Carter: My Story, with the permission of Upstart Press, $49.99 RRP, available now.
- Dan Carter will be signing books in Christchurch (Sunday, November 15) and Auckland (Tuesday, November 17). Details available at www.upstartpress.co.nz.