Upon reading Dan Carter’s statement announcing his retirement from professional rugby yesterday, memories instantly flowed back of great moments from the legendary All Blacks number 10 and the impact that he’s left on the game. Perhaps the strongest memory however – and maybe the best individual attacking performance of all time – was Carter’s in the 2nd Test during the 2005 Lions Tour of New Zealand.
One of the key benefits of analysis in rugby is it’s ability to look back over a performance in detail and challenge the overarching narrative of a game that history or the initial eye-test sometimes misses after the final whistle blows.
With that in mind, this piece looks back at that 2005 Carter game and asks – was this performance as perfect as we remember and, if it was, what made it such a standout?
Before we start looking at footage from the game itself, it’s worth considering the narrative pre-game and putting Carter’s performance in context.
The 2005 Lions Tour is now regarded as a landslide All Blacks victory, but in the build-up to the second test, tensions couldn’t have been any higher. After Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll’s tour ending prematurely due to a spear tackle involving Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga, there was a very public war of words in the week leading up to the game.
Add in the factor that this game was a potential series decider for New Zealand and everything pointed to hugely physical second test in which neither team was lacking any motivation.
The challenge facing Carter and company only became steeper as the game began, with Gareth Thomas – O’Driscoll’s replacement as both the starting 13 and Tour Captain – running over the try-line within the second minute.
After Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock over-commit to the ruck here, Thomas shows great presence of mind to spot the mismatch in front of him, running back against the grain to ghost past front rows Mealamu and Greg Somerville for the try.
Faced with steering the All Blacks to victory from this position, how do Dan Carter and New Zealand respond? Starting off, not great.
Carter first involvement in the game is a long uncontested kickoff into midfield that splits the All Blacks defence. Some clever work from Lions flank Simon Easterby to get a shoulder on Byron Kelleher opens up a gap for Dwayne Peel, and the Lions are suddenly racing back into the All Blacks half.
Although Carter does make a tackle later in the play on Thomas, the All Blacks concede another penalty in a kickable position with a chance for the Lions and Jonny Wilkinson to go 10-0 up.
Wilkinson’s effort just fades left however and, although the Lions win the ball back, an almost comical clean out in retrospect from Paul O’Connell sees New Zealand get a reprieve.
With a little oxygen to breathe, a 23-year-old Dan Carter’s game begins to kick into action.
After a cleverly designed lineout and midfield ruck to draw the Lions wingers up, Carter releases a superb spiralling kick off his left foot that pressures Josh Lewsey into kicking the ball back to New Zealand. Ryan Jones is pinged for offside from the next ruck and Carter – who retires as Test rugby’s highest points scorer with 1,598 points – kicks his first penalty of the game from 42 metres out.
Following a few minutes of back and forth between the two sides, the All Blacks have a scrum on the Lions 10 metre line. Let’s take a look at the GIF below to see what happens next.
Having showed his ability from both from the tee and with the spiral kick already, Carter puts in a beautifully lofted kick over the scrambling Lions defence before chasing up to tackle Jason Robinson and force a knock-on turnover.
As the GIF above shows however, the All Blacks make little of their best attacking platform of the game, with Carter’s backline running too laterally, allowing the Lions defence to drift and tackle Rico Gear into touch.
Despite this failed launch play, New Zealand win another penalty and Carter tightens the margin with a kick to make the score 6-7.
From the restart, the Lions win a lineout platform outside the All Blacks 22 metre line after a miscued right-footed clearance from Carter. As we’ll see in the GIF below, this is when the New Zealand 10 really starts to stamp his own mark on the game.
In spite of a good Lions lineout, Aaron Mauger breaks the ball lose to Umaga in midfield, Carter loops around to receive the pass and takes off.
Switching the ball away from nearby tacklers, the first five-eighth steps inside Lewsey, hands off Gavin Henson to break the line and wrong-foots Shane Williams before returning a pass to Umaga for the try. After flickers of promise in the game, this is the first truly world-class moment from the young fly-half.
Carter subsequently converts the try and following some more decent play from the 10, three penalty kicks are exchanged between the teams with the score now 16-13 to New Zealand.
If we keep in mind Carter’s first involvement in the game from a restart, let’s see how he does with this next opportunity after a Lions penalty.
Whereas Carter’s first kickoff gave the Lions time to collect the ball and pick holes in New Zealand’s defence, this kick is weighted perfectly for Richie McCaw to reclaim the ball. Despite an indifferent start, as this kick shows, Carter shows a real ability to adapt and improve his performance throughout this game.
This is reinforced by how Carter handles another attacking platform from a scrum in the Lions 22 after this entry in the Lions’ half. Whereas Carter’s backline play in the last instance was laboured and lateral, watch how the All Blacks subtly change things up for this scrum below.
Running an identical play, Carter passes flat and early to Umaga this time instead of running across the centre, slowing the Lions drift defence on the inside before looping around to receive the pass again. He then hits another flat option in Aaron Mauger to check the Lions defence once more, before the brilliance of wingers Rico Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu takes over to produce the score in the corner.
While every member of the backline plays his part here, Carter’s ability to make adjustments throughout the game certainly stands out again.
Then up 21-13 after the conversion is missed, the All Blacks unleashed a flurry of further attacks against a stubborn Lions defence that held out until conceding another penalty goal in the 42nd minute to Carter.
From the ensuing restart, the All Blacks win another penalty that paves the way for New Zealand’s 10 to light up the game again. Play starts with a quick tap from Kelleher – who’s dynamic presence at 9 gave New Zealand’s attack great impetus throughout the game.
A running fly-half’s bread and butter is their ability to manipulate the defensive line with ball in hand. Carter does that excellently above by taking the ball to the line, preserving space for Umaga and looking for the second touch after passing.
What happens next however is Carter’s crowning moment of the game.
After another ruck infield, we can see Carter realigning and scanning the defence on the right wing. Spotting two forwards and a winger ahead of him, Carter backs himself to beat the covering backrows and speeds past Williams with some help from So’oialo, before putting a scarcely believable grubber kick beyond Lewsey to score in the corner.
And yes, he nails the touchline conversion too; a hugely impressive feat considering the field position and how high his heart-rate must have been after scoring.
The following 25 minutes featured more consistent pieces of excellent play from Carter including 3 more points and the Lions pressing hard to come back into the game, with Simon Easterby scoring a try in the left corner in the 66th minute.
In response, Carter would score his second try of the game three minutes later, with Mealamu showing great composure to get the ball away here and put New Zealand’s outside attackers in space.
From there, New Zealand’s 10 takes over, giving Lewsey the eyes by looking left before stepping right beyond the fullback’s reach and sliding over for the try.
Carter’s last act of the game comes from a conversion after Richie McCaw’s try sees him become just the second player to score for New Zealand in the second half. A fantastic curling effort and fitting finish to the game from the Southbridge-born fly-half.
With all great rugby players, they will have standout moments in their careers that announced them as world-class operators at test level. For Dan Carter, the 2nd Lions Test in 2005 was his.
Although his performance may not have been as flawless as memory recalls, Carter’s ability to open up games with moments of individual brilliance, show an array of different skills, and most importantly, adapt to games as they developed were qualities that would mark Carter as a once-in-a-lifetime player throughout his career.
With 33 points in this game including 5 penalties, 4 conversions, a 90% kicking accuracy and 2 tries; Dan Carter’s attacking performance wasn’t perfect. However, considering the magnitude of the occasion and Carter being only 23 years old at the time, it was pretty damn close.
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