New Zealand's worst rugby nightmare became a reality on Sunday when a training injury ended Dan Carter's World Cup campaign.
OPINION: Much of the All Blacks' hopes, and those of the nation, rested on the shoulders of the young man from Southbridge with extraordinary talents.
New Zealand has been blessed with many great All Blacks and first five-eighths but Carter is a once-in-a-generation player who not only has exceptional skills but, more importantly, the X-factor that makes others play better and decides the outcome of any rugby match he starts in – even on a bad day.
The New Zealand Rugby Union bent over backwards to keep him on their books, allowing him sabbaticals and wrapping him in cotton wool whenever possible. One innocuous practice kick has put paid to all that investment.
With the public interest in the current All Blacks' campaign at an all-time high, the news of Carter's injury struck the country like a bomb on Sunday morning. The prospect of winning the Rugby World Cup without the Canterbury playmaker was the dominant subject on the airwaves and around dinner tables, even among the most casual rugby followers and Warriors fans.
Many in the country felt a genuine sense of loss, bordering on mourning, but that must pale into insignificance compared with the heartbreak Carter himself must feel. As coach Graham Henry pointed out, this young man has been working for a decade towards this pinnacle of his rugby life and, at 29 and the peak of his powers, he would have had legitimate hopes of guiding his team to world cup glory on home soil.
Carter has given the fans of Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks countless moments of joy, winning every trophy and personal plaudit except one, the Webb Ellis Cup. It speaks volumes of the man that, at his lowest point, his first thoughts were with his team and his replacement, Colin Slade. Even if the All Blacks do win this Rugby World Cup, the victory will be hollow for Carter.
His contract runs until the next world cup, yet inevitably he must ponder his playing future. Class is timeless, but nobody can predict how his form and fitness will evolve over the next four years.
One New Zealand athlete who will understand Carter's pain is rower Mahe Drysdale. The single sculler has dominated his event for several years and was a clear favourite to take the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, in 2008, only to be struck down by illness. A courageous Drysdale created Olympic folklore by drawing on his last reserves to claim bronze before vomiting and collapsing into the Olympic rowing course.
Like Carter, Drysdale was denied his ultimate prize at the top of his game, but he has found new focus and won this year's world championships. At next year's Olympics, in London, Drysdale will have another realistic chance to achieve his supreme goal. Drysdale will be 33, the same age Carter will be in 2015. Olympic gold for Drysdale could provide Carter with the inspiration towards world cup glory in the same city in 2015.
An old sports mantra says that no player is irreplaceable, but Slade will feel a very heavy burden on his shoulders. He may not be Dan Carter but he is another proud Canterbury talent who could play a decisive role in a world cup that will be won by the best team, not the best individual.
- The Press