A month ago I wrote that “anyone who doubted there’s a malign force in the universe determined to squeeze every last drop of optimism out of the New Zealand public must surely now be convinced”. I should have known better. I should have realised it was reckless to be expending precious reserves of pessimism before the World Cup was even under way.
Short of declaring the All Blacks can’t win the tournament without Dan Carter, it’s difficult to overstate the significance of his unavailability: put simply, he’s the best in the business in a critical position. The inside backs – halfback and first five, numbers nine and 10 – are the tactical hub: the ball passes through their hands in almost every sequence of play. They direct the team around the park and call the moves; they are the link between the forwards, who win the ball, and the backs, who use it.
The fact we don’t have an outstanding halfback makes the loss of Carter all the more damaging. His designated back-up Colin Slade would be less exposed outside a Fourie du Preez or a Will Genia because they would relieve him of some of the tactical and game management responsibility. Before the tournament some overseas commentators identified halfback as the one weak link in the All Black line-up. Now they will argue the All Blacks are sub-standard at nine and 10, which amounts to a fatal weakness.
No team has won the World Cup without at least one world class inside back. In 1987 it was Grant Fox, in 1995 Joost van der Westhuizen, in 2003 Jonny Wilkinson and in 2007 du Preez. The winning Wallabies had two – Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh in 1991, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham in 1999. Whether he plays at nine or, as many are advocating, 10, Piri Weepu now becomes a key figure. If you can’t win without a world class inside back, then he’s probably the only one of those available with the capacity to go to that level over the next three weeks.
Weepu brings to mind Churchill’s aphorism about Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He’s steeped in rugby league through his family – his brother played for Manly in the NFL – and Wainuiomata upbringing, and has often given the impression he’d really rather be playing the other code. There have been issues with his fitness, weight and off-field behaviour. He was left out of the 2007 World Cup squad amid suggestions he was inclined to buck protocols around socialising and sulk when he didn’t make the playing 22.
But he’s a confident character with big match temperament and the priceless gift of vision: the ability to see space on a cluttered field. He’s also an extremely solid goal-kicker. Although he’d make a good fist of replacing Carter, he probably offers more value at halfback, especially with the experienced Jimmy Cowan struggling for form.
There will be mutterings about the NZRU’s self-imposed handicap which eliminated England-based Nick Evans from calculations. However, if Evans had wanted to put himself in the position of being the starting All Black 10 should anything happen to Carter, he knew what he had to do. He chose not to. The selectors will also be berated for failing to settle on Carter’s back-up much earlier. If it had been that clear-cut, they would have.
As Graham Henry said, the All Blacks now have to play the hand they’ve been dealt. We should take comfort from the fact their greatest triumph since the 1987 World Cup – the 1996 series win in South Africa – was achieved without either of the star first fives of their generation: Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer.
When the time came, the responsibility was thrust on Simon Culhane, who like Slade had played very little rugby that season, and Jon Preston, like Weepu a halfback first and foremost. Between them they got the job done.