IN THE gangster thriller Get Carter, Michael Caine had to wade through a fug of cigarette smoke, industrial grot and bad 1970s colour schemes to complete his mission – when he forced his foe to glug a bottle of whisky, biffed him with a rifle butt and dumped him in a quarry bucket.
Scotland had to get Dan Carter by any means possible which, given that he is the world’s best player, didn’t permit them much scope. The rules of rugby union are often reviewed, with a wee tinker here and there, but it seems unlikely they’ll ever allow for drugging and slugging and slurrying.
After a long time away, Carter was on the comeback trail, choosing Scotland as his first proper test. Yikes. Up against him at No.10 was Finn Russell. Experience-wise, it was a mismatch. The young Glasgow Warrior was winning only his third cap, Carter his 102nd. Then there was the Kiwi player’s scoring feats: a world record-splattering 1,446 points.
Still, a jam-packed Murrayfield was on a high from the previous night’s football as the crowd faced down the Haka with The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, the strangest cult hit there’s ever been and threatening to outperform our anthem on nights such as these. What must Russell have been feeling? The tune was stirring but just the other side of the halfway line, pulling funny faces, was Carter the Unstoppable Points Machine.
Hails from a South Island pin-prick of a place, country-boy reserve, takes a while to get to know – this is what All Blacks captain Richie McCaw says about Carter in his autobiography. But he’s good-looking, modest and polite. He’s New Zealand’s “Man of the Millennium” who got a call from the Prime Minister when his son was born. He’s made of tungsten with a core so strong he can stand on a gym ball and throw spin passes. He possesses a macho scar. Godammit, is he perfect?
Russell was doing his darndest to get acquainted, in a rugby sense at least. The Scot’s best bits early on included a bold break from his own 22. Although he would say it’s always all about the team, Carter was looking for the 30th try of his brilliant career, en route to bursting through 1,500 points. But he missed his first kick at goal. And then McCaw mucked up for Scotland’s try. Quietly to ourselves we started to wonder: if these rugby gods are actually mortal after all, could Scotland finally beat the All Blacks?
Absolute perfection eludes Carter: he has not yet won the World Cup. After New Zealand – hot favourites – were twice dumped out before the final he missed the 2011 triumph through injury. Next year’s cup is the goal and after 12 months after a sabbatical was followed by injury, he was hoping Scotland would give him a good workout.
It must have been strange, after hanging out with Britney Spears at Elton John’s Oscars party during his downtime, to be confronted by Scotland’s luscious, pouting blond bombshell, Richie Gray – and maybe it was this which caused him to miss another kick. Nothing wrong with his passing though, and when Russell had to go off for treatment you wondered if it was Carter’s triple-involvement in a buccaneering move which had given him the sore head. While he was away, Carter got himself on the board with the left boot. But then Russell returned to dance in and out of a Scottish attack every bit as exciting as the New Zealand one.
Carter hadn’t quite been ready for England last week, and while New Zealand had made 13 changes from Twickenham, they don’t really do second-string sauntering. By half-time they’d forced they way back into the lead and Carter had bagged nine of their 14 points.
He’ll be 33 by the World Cup and it’s never been won with a stand-off that old. Did he look worried by the threat from younger men? No, he was the epitome of calm. “The thing about Dan,” writes McCaw, “is that he can do everything and, like most great athletes, seems to have all the time in the world to do it.”
But one young man wasn’t hanging about to admire this. Scotland were playing with verve and Russell was right at the heart of it. Just before the hour, Carter went off. From the bench he must have been impressed by Russell’s game management, coolness under pressure and flashes of daring before the Scot himself retired.
Carter has seen it all, of course, and while he watched the All Blacks pull away in time-honoured fashion, he hadn’t witnessed a Scotland team giving them a fright before.