The Spinoff’s editor, Duncan Greive, co-authored the just-released Dan Carter: My Story with the All Blacks’ first five. Here he shares his memories of the tumultuous year the pair spent working on the book.
The lowest I ever heard him was late in February. We spoke via Skype, as we often did through that portion of the year, he at home in Christchurch, me in Auckland. It was after his first Super Rugby game of the year, during which he had injured his right leg – the same one he’d broken just six months earlier. Even after healing, the break had lingered on, like a bad guest hanging around at the end of a party, as nerve issues which ran through the ITM Cup and to the edge of the Northern Hemisphere tour.
Now here he was again, at the other end of summer. Doing that terrible dance again: injury; rehab; hoping for the best. And all the while, the clock ticked away on his final year as a Crusader, as an All Black. And off in the distance, getting both closer and further away, the promise of one last World Cup.
It’s so easy to forget now, as the country basks in the aftermath of that game, but for much of the first half of this year his making the squad felt distinctly unlikely. He was playing – when he was playing – out of position at 12, portrayed as yesterday’s man next to the dynamism of Barrett and Cruden. So the most likely conclusion for the book we were writing together felt like the special agony of watching another man wearing 10 play out his dreams.
The mood was different when we began work on the project. We met in the backroom of a café toward the top of Mount Eden road, on the fringe of Auckland’s city centre. He and his agent, Dean Hegan, sat in a semi-private room, waiting to meet me. It was a feeling out process for everyone involved: Dean wanted to see what kind of a joker I was; I to see what kind of book they had in mind.
What Dan wanted surprised me. He was curious about the kind of sports books I thought would function as a model for his. I mentioned the two bios I’d read most recently: Agassi’s Open – in which he discusses the advantages of crystal meth as a housekeeping aid; and Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth – which is peopled by oligarchs and gangsters and untold depravity and might be the craziest autobiography I’ve ever read.
He’d read both, a good sign, and didn’t flinch at all, a better one. Not that his past contains those kind of revelations – or if it does, I never became privy to them – but I thought it interesting and instructive that he wanted to reveal, in as much detail as he was capable, the genuine realities of life as one of the two most scrutinised sportspeople in the country over this past decade.
We talked on for a couple of hours. About process, expectations, style. How much he’d reveal, how much he’d keep back.
By the end, it felt like we had the beginnings of an understanding, and even though the deal – between my publishers Upstart, and his agents at Essentially – wouldn’t be signed for a couple of months, we started working together from that point on.
This was early spring of 2014 – after the leg injury, before the nerve issues, a period of relative calm. A few weeks later he flew out to the US, for a sold-out game at Soldier Field in Chicago – an NFL stadium full of rugby fans. The first game tinged with history in a year strewn with them. The leg seemed like it had come right. He played a strong second half against a weak team, and we relaxed, just a little.
I spoke with him a couple of times as the tour went on, in London and Wales. He was mixed up. After a couple of years pitted with injuries, he was very happy to be close to fully fit and to be playing. But it was balanced with a frustration at the handful of games remaining, the scant opportunities to actually get on the field.
The publishing contract was signed some time in late November. Pre-Christmas is normally the All Blacks’ holiday, a chance to let bodies assaulted for 10 solid months heal as best they can ahead of the coming campaign. They often come back a little fat off of the good life, like the rest of us, and work it off through January.
Dan was not about that. He was negotiating a much bigger contract than the book deal – one to play in France when his NZRU contract ended. The signal was both loud and entirely unnecessary: the end of his New Zealand rugby career was coming.
A keen trainer since primary school, this summer’s conditioning had a distinct edge. It was also one of the few long windows he’d have to work on the book. So I borrowed my Mum’s car and pointed it toward Taupo, where his wife Honor’s mother has a bach.
It was Saturday, December 13, the roads clear and parched. I checked into the homely Quality Inn on the lake’s edge, and, a couple of hour’s later, drove out to meet him. We sat on the edge of a nearby park, drank a couple of beers and talked for three hours. Started at the start, talking about Southbridge, his hometown. About Neville and Bev, his parents. About his teenage years, down the road in Leeston, and maybe about his first, halting expeditions into the big wide world of Hornby.
I forget where the interview ended. High school, maybe? But I remember how he was. Attentive, earnest, trying as hard as he could to search his mind for memories which might get me back to the Canterbury Plains of his youth. I’d ask him a question, and he’d stare into the distance for a while. Then he’d break and say, very apologetically, “I can’t remember”. His memory isn’t the greatest. But he was very determined. Sometimes a particular path would trigger another recollection, and he’d talk happily about a late night ritual, or weird incident on stage at school.
The following morning I watched him train. Another brilliant, clear day. We met at Owen Delany Park, on the outskirts of town, a place I’d heard Phil Stevens call domestic cricket from countless times, but never visited. It was deserted, except for Dan. He ran through a series of drills designed by All Blacks’ training staff, each one utterly alien to the lame clichés of rugby training in my dumb head. I thought it was weights and tackle bags and maybe something to do with that wooden scrum machine thing.
Nope. Dan was quick stepping through batons, sprinting like hell for ten metres, stepping hard off either foot. Even towing some heavy grass sled, which looked a real serious pain in the butt.
It was a graft, a grind, a series of vaguely joyless actions, each one designed to make him fitter and suppler and also, slowly and ever-so-slightly, less susceptible to injury. It was the other side of sports, the kind fought at the margins which often separates winning from losing. The one I thought I was fascinated by, but found mostly boring in the flesh.
And all I was doing was watching! He had to actually complete these weird, tight little exercises. Over and over, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. And lately, his reward for all this discipline and exertion – aside from the money – had only been more injuries. For years.
I sat and watched and marveled at the guy. How he’d run into this wall, over and over again. Leaving him physically beaten and mentally shattered. And each morning, got up and done it again. Was he a maniac or a shaman? I wanted to know. This was the core of the book, for me – finding the human being nestled deep inside the superhuman athlete.
I wanted to know that, but I also wanted some company. Like I said – training is something sportswriters think we want to watch, but is in fact repetitive, monotonous work. Eventually I was saved by Honor and his son Marco, who came up from a nearby playground. Marco joined in the training, leaping on the sled, racing his Dad through the windsprints and all that. I don’t think it’s spoiling the future to point out that he will inevitably be an All Black.
Later still we were joined by some extended family, who did a friendly grown up version of what Marco was doing: watched and yelled encouragement and eventually tried to kick some goals. Again, not a spoiler to say that Dan’s in-laws won’t be troubling the All Blacks’ selectors any time soon.
This pattern repeated itself for another couple of days: watch training in the morning, drink a couple of beers – annoyingly, only a couple – and talk in the afternoon. It was a nice rhythm for me, and what passed for a holiday for him. We had one expedition to town, where he was essentially mobbed, which is why he can’t really go to town. Afterwards I drove back to Auckland, thinking that this guy was a Kiwi legend and surely in the shape of his life, and definitely going to put this coming season on blast.
I next saw him briefly, ringing the bell at the NZX, where a company he had invested in years earlier was listing. Then again, a couple of weeks into the new year, before dawn on the waterfront. He was filming a commercial for Rexona, an All Blacks sponsor, which involved walking along the balcony of the Viaduct Events Centre over and over and over. Each time looking into the sunrise, before putting on his headphones. The weird life of a modern professional athlete.
In late January I flew down to Christchurch. He was living in between places. All of the rugby guys do, a bit – hotels, airports, road life. Dan much more than most: his life, pregnant wife and kid in Auckland; his job in Canterbury.
The Clearwater Resort was another place I’d only heard about on RadioSport, a golf course and hotel which occasionally hosted tournaments of some scale. I caught a cab out there early one morning, and sat in a largely empty restaurant, waiting for my room to tick over, amid sculpted earth and pristine waterways.
We were miles from anywhere – a taxi to the shops and back cost over $50 – but the sleepy isolation on the outskirts of this city suited him. The first night he cooked us dinner: fillets of steak, which I’d just started eating after 21 years a vegetarian; piles of vegetables, because he’d assumed I still was one.
We ate on his deck overlooking the lake, while the neighbours pretended not to stare and he didn’t notice. We talked for hours about his late teens and early twenties, when he was a kid trying to figure out how to be a man, a country boy acclimatising to the city; all the while gradually coming to terms with the learned and born physical genius he possessed.
The following morning I watched him train with the Crusaders for the first time. It was much more interesting than the solo stuff. A drone hovered overhead, which seemed very modern, and the backs and forwards ran through a more complex series of drills.
A small and slightly motley crew of Cantabs looked on: kids, old folks, some slightly fringey people. They didn’t speak, mostly; just sat on benches, nodding and sometimes grunting.
Afterwards I had lunch with Aaron Mauger, an All Black and all-round New Zealand hero for talking to Express on LGBT issues a full decade ago. He’s a close friend of Dan’s, but now a coach at the Crusaders, a situation which has caused a small distance to open up between the two men. Mauger talked about Dan in glowing terms, this painfully shy kid who snuck into the Canterbury dressing room over a dozen years ago. About how he wanted to ‘leave the jersey in a better state when I left,’ a terrible cliché of which my journalistic training should leave me deeply cynical. But you hang around Canterbury players of a certain generation and buy every single piece of it.
The next day: rinse and repeat. Only this time I really struggled to pay attention to training and had lunch with Richie McCaw.
Richie McCaw! The captain, the legend, idolised by everyone from everyman to the Prime Minister. Richie! Somehow, being down there, amongst a team that didn’t seem to care, and a sleepy corner of town that had trained itself to ignore these guys, I was able to be hold it together.
We went to the same place the players go for everything. The only café anywhere near the training ground: a little converted villa which probably owes between some and all of its turnover to the Canterbury rugby mafia.
I ordered I don’t remember; Richie ordered the biggest chicken salad ever made. It came in a vessel I would describe as in the sink/basin size range. For a full hour he ate methodically, refueling the greatest engine in New Zealand history. In between times he talked about Dan Carter.
He spoke at a time when Dan had quietly become almost a peripheral member of the All Blacks, and by no means certain of selection. He laboured over his words a little, thinking hard before answering, being very deliberate about what he said and delving deep into the complete archive of all Crusaders’ and All Blacks’ games he has stored in his mind to refine particular moments or attributes.
Mainly McCaw spoke emphatically about the importance of Dan to the side; with a force that was both keenly felt and also implied that the man he was speaking about had himself perhaps forgotten how much he meant to the team.
By the end I was left with the impression that these stoic Cantabs found it easier to discuss their feelings for one another through an intermediary – even a tourist journalist – than face-to-face. Much of this is facilitated by one man, who we visited later that day. Gilbert Enoka, real estate supremo and ‘mental skills coach’, a white man with a mystical African-reading name who might well be the single person most referenced by Dan in the book.
His home was lovely but unprepossessing; a bungalow with a small pool in a flat section of suburban Christchurch. We retired to a study studded with memoribilia and talked for a couple of hours about everything but Dan. About the All Blacks, and how they had changed, quite radically, during the 13 year span Dan had played for them. Particularly about certain psychological processes some of which distracted you from your task on the one hand, while others facilitated success on the other. He was definitely a true guru, and I felt a clarity as we walked from his house later that evening.
On the final day we toured his Christchurch. Dan drove a new black Falcon, I sat alongside him, watching, asking, recording. We cruised past his first, horrid flat. His second, slightly better flat. His third, quite nice flat. The first house he ever bought, metres away from the red zone, in an area still shook up.
His high school, his rugby club, the shop he invested in. The shuttered desolation of post-quake Lancaster Park. He hung on the gates, looking in for the first time since the shaking stopped, and I felt both privileged to watch him roll through his memories, and like an intruder on a private moment.
We journeyed on to the hastily assembled new ground of Rugby League Park at Addington. The whole time we sometimes talked and often didn’t about the earthquake scars which still criss-cross the city. He was buoyant throughout, reliving his youth, before the Crusaders and All Blacks and billboards and fame, remembering what was and never would be again.
Then we drove out to Southbridge, over flat, featureless plains. We stopped at Leeston: the big smoke for him at one time. We walked through his old school for the first time since he left it, and a startled teacher out of term time walked us through the buildings which shaped him and so many more both just like and entirely different to him.
Then we went on to Southbridge. Neville, tools deep in a rebuild of the local fire station. A café selling flat whites, which are now the only coffee. The shuttered dairies, the pool, the pub. The rugby club with its priceless memoribilia – a small museum. Then a slow drive down the road his father was born on and will likely die on. The already mythic section alongside his childhood home, where the goalposts a proud father built his son still stand.
Then back, swiftly, to the airport and home.
A month later and the bright, excited man was out of the nostalgic pool I’d encouraged him to wade into and into a pit of worry. His right leg had again let him down. Over the coming months he’d keep playing second five, for no good reason I could tell, and struggle with both ghosts in his limbs and frustration with his form.
All throughout he’d sometimes meet with Steve Hansen, and more often with Wayne Smith. They’d talk about what he might do, encourage a man who for much of that time felt like he was engaged in a long and not very funny act of supreme futility. Chasing a dream which increasingly few fans and far fewer sportswriters thought was possible.
I felt sad for him. Really sad. My own feelings had become coupled to his own. Some part of it was related to my financial incentive, surely: I stood to do better if the book sold well, which it was far more likely to do should he be fit and playing at his peak.
But I think I was beginning to just want it for him. I really liked the guy. He was really different to the people I spent time with. It took some getting used to. I grew up in inner cities – London until 10; Auckland since. Their citizens, either born or migrated, mostly have a particular kind of character. They’re pretty full-on. Dan has that Canterbury politeness, and a natural reticence. Over months I never recall hearing him angry, though there were many occasions when he had every right to be. At his worst he’d be a little exasperated. At his worst.
Time wore on. He and Honor had a second son, Fox. The season seemed headed to hell, his body bad, his form worse. The year, and with it his career, in a deathly spasm. It weighed on him. Yet he could barely talk about it in public; that’s not what All Blacks do.
Despite a fine late run which he played a big role in, the Crusaders missed the playoffs for the first time in forever. A moment bringing with it sadness – at the end of his time with that team happening on a bum note – but also relief, at an unplanned break and time with his newly expanded family.
He joined the All Blacks early, and played that pioneering game in Samoa, performing quite well. Then he did it again, and again. All year columnists wrote over and over about his spark having gone. Yet simply avoiding reading them wasn’t escape; his friends, well-meaning but misguided, texted him to ‘ignore the media’. So he felt the burden anyway.
Jerry Collins died suddenly, violently, tragically. It affected him deeply. Yet when we spoke it was hilarious – stories, as Morrrissey once said of Nick Kent, to uncurl the hair in your afro. Suddenly the Rugby Championship was over. He had not only survived, he had thrived. Months earlier, Aaron Cruden had suffered an awful injury, and both Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett setbacks of their own. Suddenly that creaky old man clinging to his career was essentially all that was left in the cupboard. Talking to Dan, you sensed the weird relief that brought. And the challenge: now it was, almost entirely, on him.
We last spoke in New Zealand via Skype, when he ducked away from a team function at that Novotel next to Auckland Airport. He was boiling and bubbling and on his way to a tournament which truly, truly seemed an outlandish unlikelihood for him a few short months earlier.
And you know what happened next. I watched in those brilliant early mornings, with some combination of my wife and three girls, and a few stray friends and family, as he grew into the most dominant force of the tournament. Culminating in that still-unfathomable pair of kicks. Which transformed both him and this book project from a hard luck story into a fairytale.
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During the final I watched him get hit, late enough for a penalty but too early for a card, by Sekope Kepu. All the air went out of me and those milliseconds felt like minutes. He first moved, then got to his feet. I felt the whole country exhale, and soon enough he had the game on a string.
It doesn’t always happen in sport. It doesn’t even happen often. But it did on that day. I walked around, lighter than air, imagining how he might be feeling. I played basketball fueled by nervous energy. Got home, showered, and the phone rang. He was calling to describe the last chapter. The first in Dan Carter: My Story. A book we wrote, truly together, and which I hope goes some way to capturing both a very hard year and one of the most extraordinary endings in New Zealand sports.
Dan Carter: My Story is available nationwide for $49.99, but also at Unity Books, who sponsor The Spinoff’s book section – so if you live in the central city of Auckland or Wellington, get it from them.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.