Carter: Lions series the pinnacle for All Blacks

There could be few better people to teach the uninitiated All Blacks about what to expect from a series against the British & Irish Lions than Dan Carter.

Carter savoured first hand the singular frenzy the tourists engendered in his homeland the last time they visited in 2005 — and still recalls the experience with palpable awe and wonder.

Then aged 23, the legendary fly-half left his own indelible mark on the series with a performance of unanswerable, career-defining brilliance in the second Test, when he scored 33 points in a 48-18 rout.

This helped the hosts clinch the series and they would go on to seal a 3-0 whitewash a week later with another convincing [38-19] victory — albeit without shoulder injury victim Carter.

Yet despite this unfortunate ending, Carter retains only blissful memories of a truly seminal moment in his storied career.

“I was extremely grateful to play in a Lions series early on in my career,” Carter, who top-scored in the series with 44 points, told ESPN. “As much as people [in Great Britain and Ireland] talk about how big and important the Lions series are as they only happen every four years, for us it’s even more so as it’s once every 12 years in our country.

“It’s definitely ahead of anything you play as an All Black, except potentially a World Cup because there’s a lot of history that goes into a Lions series, which makes it a lot more exciting.”

Carter had 18 caps to his name — including five earned at the 2003 Rugby World Cup — when the Lions series began, after making his international debut in June 2003.

Yet he admits he did not fully appreciate the significance of a Lions series.

“Something I was a little bit naïve about was exactly how important and how much of a following these Lions series got. I didn’t really understand the intensity of the series.

Carter, second left, scored 33 points in the second Lions Test of the 2005 series. Phil Walter/Getty Images

“I remember it started in 2004 when the All Blacks toured the Northern Hemisphere in the autumn series. Doing media before a Test match, normally it’s about the game that Saturday, but a lot of the questions were about the Lions series the following year. All of a sudden, I realised how big a series it was going to be.

“So I trained extremely hard that off-season and wanted to be a part of that series.”

Carter’s endeavour paid off and he was named in Graham Henry’s squad for the showdown against the much-trumpeted tourists, the self-anointed most professional Lions squad ever.

But nothing could have prepared him for the extraordinary fan fervour the Lions inspired.

“I just couldn’t believe how many supporters there were in the townships,” recalled the 35-year-old, who retired from international duty in 2015 after helping the All Blacks win a second successive World Cup. “You’re arriving at the stadium an hour and a half before the game and there were Lions supporters and All Blacks supporters already in the stadium, when they normally arrive just five minutes before the game.

“It just brought a different dynamic to your normal Test series, the Bledisloe Cup, the old Tri-Nations back then, and as a player that’s exactly the atmosphere and environment you want to be playing in.”

Yet while the Lions’ legions of followers impressed, their team floundered.

“Little did I realise that if you play well against the Lions, it can be a stepping stone for bigger things.”


Carter believes muddled selection — head coach Sir Clive Woodward’s folly in fielding preordained Test and midweek teams has been well documented — was largely to blame.

“I think from the first Test to the second to the third, there were quite a lot of changes in the Test squad each week,” said Carter, who has just finished his second season in France playing for Racing 92.

“I think that goes to show that the coaches obviously had injuries and things to deal with like that, but maybe they weren’t 100 percent sure of, or committed to, a certain team. When you are chopping and changing the squad, which you have to do leading into the first Test, you kind of need to settle yourself on a certain group of guys to lead the team.”

Woodward’s reliance on the controversial Labour Party spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as media adviser also spectacularly backfired.

Campbell instigated a concerted anti-All Blacks campaign after a series-ending injury to Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll just 41 seconds into the first Test, which the tourists lost 21-3.

O’Driscoll suffered a dislocated shoulder after the hosts’ skipper Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu infamously dumped him headfirst into the ground with a blatant spear tackle.

Carter claims he did not see the incident, but says the All Blacks were aggrieved that their inspirational leader Umaga “was singled out and targeted” — and that their victory had been overshadowed.

“There wasn’t anything specifically said, but obviously as a group and as a team we built nicely that week and wanted to play extremely well and tie up the series for our captain,” he said.

Carter slides in to score one of his two tries during the 2005 second Test. Phil Walter/Getty Images

The 2017 Lions would do well to heed the perils of riling the All Blacks as they unleashed hell on the dishevelled tourists to power to an emphatic series triumph in Wellington.

Carter was the architect of the demolition, his near-faultless kicking and two tries helping him completely upstage his opposite number, Jonny Wilkinson, the preeminent fly-half of the time.

It was, Carter acknowledges, the “best Test match I’ve played”.

“I think it was because it was against the Lions team, that had players from four extremely proud nations, that it magnified the performance even more,” he said. “It’s not as if it was a performance against a second-tier nation or something like that. [We were] up against the best of the best [of the Northern Hemisphere].”

Yet he did not realise just “how special a performance” it was until he switched on his mobile phone in the dressing room afterwards, and was greeted by an unprecedented torrent of congratulatory text messages from friends and family.

“That was nice, but it was nicer to think that I’d helped the team secure a series win,” he said. “That was the most important thing for me.”

But while he strove to remain humble, the inescapable reality was that Carter was now a global rugby icon.

“Little did I realise that if you are successful and play well [against the Lions], it can be a stepping stone for bigger things and being recognised potentially all around the world.”

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