Dan Carter tells Owen Slot in Paris that he has found a second life with Racing 92, more than three years after a sequence of injuries wrecked his body and left him close to retirement
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Into the fractured debate about the pros and cons of playing in France, walks Dan Carter, World Cup-winner, world player of the year and, here in Paris, about as marketable a face of the overseas experience as you could find. Carter will sell you France without actually intending to, and that’s not only because he is a foodie and recently spent four hours with his wife on the tasting menu at what is now one of his favourite restaurants in the world.
We meet at the training ground of his new club, Racing 92, south of the Paris périphérique. He and his young family live midway between the club and the city. “It’s easy to go into Paris on your days off,” he says. His eyes light up. “We are really getting into the cuisine.”
And yes, maybe, with World Cups, cuisine and a million-euro contract, contentment is inevitable. Yet Carter, 34, is not here to get fat on the spoils of his extraordinary success. The game remains his driver.
After the World Cup, the All Blacks splintered. Some have just returned to Super Rugby, some retired. Carter is in decent contact with one of the retirees, Richie McCaw, who is deep into 24-hour adventure racing (“He’ll never rest his body and put his feet up. He is 100mph with everything.”)
Carter could have gone down a gear himself, but he came here for a different challenge. He is fascinating, in this interview, about the relentlessness of the game and how it wore him down to the extent that, three years ago, he nearly walked away from it completely. France has recharged him.
“You can sometimes get set in your ways as to how things should be done,” he explains. “Different opinions, different insight can only help with how you play. Some guys thrive upon it and others don’t, probably because they are so set in stone with how they think things should be done. So it’s all about adapting and learning. It is great for a player’s growth.”
Adapting and learning abroad — these are options denied to England players. Carter is not looking, here, to make political statements on that subject, but he does make simple, straightforward sense. Rugby players are tired machines who plough the same weary furrow year-in, year-out. “And every year, it’s getting more demanding,” he says.
Seven years ago, he came to Perpignan for a first crack at the French experience. “It was good for me,” he says. “I just needed a new challenge. I was 27, a good six or seven years into playing at the top level. I just needed a change, something refreshing and that opportunity came about. I wanted to grow my rugby. I thought playing in a different competition would help.”
That attempt was frustrated by an achilles injury, but it persuaded him to come back for more. His French isn’t yet good enough. “I can start a conversation,” he says. “I am just really struggling to understand when they talk to me. It just goes over my head.”
So at training, he will often have Ronan O’Gara, the former Ireland player and now a Racing coach, standing next to him, translating. “Ronan’s good; he does all his presentations in French,” he says. “He’s a bit of a sounding board for me. If I want to talk about the game, I’ll talk to him and he’ll talk to the coaches for me. You get used to it. You can’t come in here and try and change everything to the way we do it back home.
“You have to fit it. There can be frustrations at times with the way they do things, but you can’t get frustrated, you have to adapt, it’s a new challenge, that’s one reason I came here, to test myself out of my comfort zone. Playing for the Crusaders for so long, you know what to expect. This is not easy, but it is exactly what I needed.” He says that he was “bracing” himself a bit for the French rugby culture. When he was in Perpignan, he was astonished by, for instance, forwards in the showers slapping each other round the face in a pre-match build-up. “That’s the complete opposite to what we are like at home,” he says. “But at Racing, it’s not so bad.”
The rugby in France has changed too, he says. The Top 14 is routinely slated for being a forwards-based collision game, yet he has been “pleasantly surprised.” In 2009 at Perpignan, he says, “the game was very forward-orientated, kicks for the corners. Yes, the game is a little slower here than back home. But the willingness for teams to use the ball more is something I’ve really noticed. They have the intent to play, more than seven years ago, which is really encouraging. If the opportunity is there inside your 22, most teams would take it now. Back then, it was frowned upon.”
One element that he has really enjoyed is a return to one of the traditions of rugby life. “Here,” he says, “they still have the team spirit values. You’ve worked hard all week together, after a game, you’ve got to celebrate your success. In New Zealand, the game is so professional, you don’t often have a beer after a game, you are immediately concentrating on the next game. Here, you enjoy a good night together. Not every week. It might only be one or two beers in the changing room. But that’s why I played the game: the enjoyment, the team spirit.”
He also enjoys the Kiwi-fication of the Top 14. “Every week, you are up against ex-team-mates or good friends,” he says. Joe Rokocoko is his Racing team-mate. “Sitiveni Sivivatu, one of my good mates and ex-team-mates from years ago — I hadn’t seen him in years and it was good to catch up with him last weekend when we played Castres. That happens pretty much every week.”
The big one is Toulon. They have been sharing top spot in the Top 14 with Racing this season. They also have another world champion, Ma’a Nonu, in the midfield. Racing will play them twice in the next five weeks, the second of those a European Champions Cup quarter-final.
“I’m good mates with Ma’a Nonu,” he says. “They just have so many quality players there. The team is stacked full of superstars.”
Interestingly, one of the reasons Carter opted to join Racing ahead of Toulon was the ethos. “Racing has a huge emphasis on their academy,” he says. “A lot of players have come through the academy. That is healthy for Racing and for French rugby and I think more clubs should have similar vision.”
What is striking is Carter’s genuine appetite for his new world. He doesn’t sugarcoat it; he isn’t impressed with the size of the Racing crowds (they average less than 8,000 in the Top 14) and doesn’t mind saying so.
Yet it does all feel like the second life he thought he’d never have. In 2013, he reminds you, he collected so many injuries “to the extent that I was about to retire.”
“It was mind games. I just didn’t have any confidence in my body,” he says. “I’d be thinking: with the career I’d had, I’d achieved so much, it would be easy to walk away from the game, hang up my boots and still be really proud.
“You put on a brave face, everyone asks how you are and you say, you’re good even though you might not be. It’s part of the rugby environment. You’d often hide from your team-mates how you are feeling. I wasn’t even telling the coaches how I was feeling.”
The next year was not a lot better. Aaron Cruden established himself as the All Blacks No 10 with Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade making up a cast of rivals. “The frustrating thing,” Carter says, “was I wasn’t able to stake my claim for the position because I was injured. These young guys were coming through and playing really well and I was helping and supporting them, but not able to show my worth because I was always injured.”
Even this time last year, the start of World Cup year, his confidence was shot. “In the first half of the Super Rugby season, the only satisfaction I’d get was getting through the 80 minutes. Without even wanting to perform well for the team, that was all I was worried about. After about seven games in a row, I was finally: ‘OK, let’s actually start adding to this team, start playing well.’ So I started setting myself goals of what I wanted to achieve in the games.”
In April, Cruden was then injured, and would miss the World Cup. Thus the question: was there not a part of you that thought ‘Good, I am now in pole position’? “I hadn’t really thought about it like that,” he answers. “I do remember when he got injured I felt: ‘Hold on, I am going to have to step up here. I need to contribute a lot more than I had done the previous two years. I have to step up to the challenge’. ”
It is fair to say he succeeded there. It is also very evident that, having come through that challenge, he has the energy and desire to address another.