Mark Reason: Time for Dan Carter to step aside

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 31/07/2013
Carter, Cruden
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NEW NORMAL?: An injured Dan Carter looks on as Aaron Cruden delivers a series win for the All Blacks over France.

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OPINION: There came a time when Carl Lewis could not run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds, when Roger Federer began to sweat like ordinary men and when Viv Richards was no longer the master blaster.

And these times feel like heresy. Buildings will fall and the sky will fill with ash and no more will Daniel Carter be the best first-five in the world.

But these are shaky days and I am wondering, just wondering, if Carter's time is nearer than we think. None of us wants to admit it, because the passing of a sports star is a reminder of our own mortality. If DC can age, then what chance have the rest of us of avoiding an early grave? No-one likes to be reminded that death, even sporting death, is not particularly choosy.

And it always feels like some sort of death when a Federer or an Ali starts to rage against the dying of the light. It seemed like they would go on forever.

And just when we thought that Carter would take the Crusaders to their first Super Rugby triumph since 2008, the great man is usurped, undone, by a spotty kid from Palmerston North.

Carter wasn't bad on Saturday. He never is; he just wasn't immortal. He hit the post with a kick he would normally nail. He snatched a dropped goal that would have won the match. And at the end, Carter took his eye off the ball, dropped a simple pass from Zac Guildford and was driven into the turf by a 24-year-old who then pushed the great man away with a dismissive hand.

What made it even harder for Carter to take was the realisation that the pretender to the throne is no longer pretending. Aaron Cruden is the real thing.

There was a moment of genius from Carter at the start of the second half on Saturday night when he flicked an inside ball behind his back. It wasn't flash; it was disguise and it opened up the Chiefs defence. But it was Cruden who made the plays that decided the match.

The first of them was in defence. Just when the Crusaders looked like they might bust open the match again, Cruden scrambled back and hauled down Ryan Crotty just short of the line. He then got to his feet and batted down the attempted pass, before regaining his position in the midfield and making another tackle over the gainline.

Who had ever thought of Cruden as a defensive leader, but the little man inspired his team to take a stand. And that stand gave the Chiefs the momentum off which Cruden made the interception that decided the match.

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Afterwards, Cruden gave credit to Wayne Smith, saying, "He really instils that mana". But you can't instil a mana that isn't there. Cruden has become a leader of this Chiefs side and at the age of 24 has guided his team to consecutive finals.

The Chiefs' plotting was terrific as always. In attack, they had nothing to do with running up the middle, where Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Wyatt Crockett are so dangerous in the tackle.

In defence, the Chiefs tackled in pairs to negate the Crusaders' skill at the offload. They rushed the Crusaders at first receiver, they held in the middle and then swarmed the touchline, the back three pushing up hard at the last moment. It was not unlike how South Africa stopped Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final.

Nor was it unlike some of the defence that the Brumbies used to win in South Africa, with first-five Matt Toomua smashing up into Morne Steyn on several occasions. But these sorts of defences can take a toll on a team through a hard season, unless you are young and keen enough to handle it.

There's the rub. The oldest guy in the Chiefs' backline on Saturday was the 27-year-old Asaeli Tikoirotuma, and the average age just 24. And once the hapless Clyde Rathbone was replaced for dropping too many balls, the oldest man in the Brumbies backline was 25, with an average age of 23. It seems that top-level professional rugby, given quality coaches, is becoming a young man's game. This is the Moneyball final.

Carter made a telling remark the other day when he said, "A lot of enjoyment came back into the side". That means the enjoyment wasn't there last season. And it is hard for veterans to bring the enthusiasm of wide-eyed young men. I suspect the Chiefs might take a 22-year-old Ma'a Nonu on to their roster, but they wouldn't touch him with a barge pole now.

The All Blacks also need to push on with their youth policy. Logic suggests that the All Blacks will not win the 2015 World Cup with two 33-year-olds and a 34-year-old at 10, 12 and 13. The previous World Cup final-winning No 10s have been 25, 28, 27, 25, 24, 28 and 22/27. Carter is a special man, but he would be five years older than the previous youngest winner.

Is it time to acknowledge that Cruden is the coming man and to consider moving Carter to 12, the position that his early coaches thought best suited him. It seems like heresy, but then the same was said when Carter took over from Andrew Mehrtens all those years ago.

"Mehrtens is everybody's favourite," Murray Mexted said.

Not any more.

None of us expects Steve Hansen to pick Cruden for the opening test against Australia in Sydney, but you wouldn't bet against him being there at Twickenham in 2015.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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