In this excerpt from Dan Carter: My Story the All Blacks’ first five details the physical and emotional agony of the injury which ended his 2011 World Cup campaign on rugby league field in Wellington. Taken from Dan Carter: My Story by Dan Carter and The Spinoff editor Duncan Greive, published by Upstart Press and priced at $49.99
I’d been given the Saturday morning off, so had a lie in. We were staying at the Intercontinental, in downtown Wellington. Ma’a and I went off to his local café in Lyall Bay, trying to avoid the crowds. We were sat having a coffee when I got a phone call from Darren Shand, our manager. He told me that Richie’s foot hadn’t come right and he was pulling out of the game. Shandy told me I’d be captaining the side, and I was needed back at the hotel to do media. I hung up, momentarily stunned, and told Ma’a what had happened. He drove us back into town.
I’d been vice-captain since 2009, around two and a half years by that point. But I’d never captained the All Blacks, because Richie and I had always played together through that span. The games he missed, I missed too. So Mils Muliaina got to captain the side, as did Kevvy Mealamu, in the pool match against Japan. And while I never begrudged them or Richie, I was so happy to be finally getting the honour. I called Dad, who was incredibly proud, and headed off up to the press conference. There were a bunch of questions, asking how it changed things, and I gave stock answers. It truly didn’t change much at all. I’ve learned so much from Richie over the years, principally that captaincy is driven by your actions on the field. As first-five you’re already a big part of tactics and strategy anyway, so there were no nerves to speak of. I was just tremendously excited about the opportunity.
After the press conference we had lunch together in the team conference room. Richie’s injury wasn’t thought to be too serious, so there wasn’t any major concern in the air. Management explained that I was now captaining the side, and we talked about how the captain’s run would play out. We’d warm up, play a bit of touch, do the captain’s run, then we’re done. We didn’t need a big session that deep into the tournament, when your preparation is already well advanced. The only unconventional part was that as Westpac Stadium was occupied that evening, we’d do the run at Rugby League Park, in Newtown.
The ground was stickier, which isn’t ideal, and the conditions naturally somewhat different. But it didn’t seem a huge deal. I felt good throughout the warm-up, then rolled my ankle a little during a game of touch rugby. We were only running at half pace, but I went to step and it rolled. So the rest of the game I hung out on the wing and tried to run it off. I could still feel it during the captain’s run. It was a short and sharp pain, and refused to come right the way these kind of minor tweaks tend to. But I didn’t want to disrupt my routine, so when the run ended I thought I’d go through my normal kicking session before I saw the physios. After a captain’s run I’ll always do 15 or 20 goal-kicks, and a few drop-kicks. But because my back had been tight, and my ankle a little soft, I thought I’d limit it to four goal-kicks, just to make sure I had my timing down. My plan was to do two from right in front, then one each from either side, 15 metres in from touch.
The two from out front felt fine. My dodgy ankle was on my plant foot, and it wasn’t 100 per cent, but I was certain it would settle down ahead of the game. As I prepared for my third kick, I put the ball down, and knelt on one knee to place the ball on the tee, before pushing up with my left foot. It’s the kind of ritual that all kickers have, and this was no different to thousands I’ve run through before. Just as I stepped up with my left foot I felt my groin a little bit. It was odd, and a little unsettling. But bodies are always giving off phantom messages, so I didn’t think too much of it. I stepped back, ran in and kicked the ball. Black dot. No problem.
One more kick, I thought, then I’ll go and get that ankle seen to. I went through the same routine, and as I got up I felt my groin twinge again. Not enough to worry, just enough to be aware of it. I shrugged the sensation off, and stepped to the back of my run-up, then paced in to kick the ball. I approached and swung through my kicking arc, just the same as ever. Only this time the result was very different. At the moment of contact, when my foot struck the ball, my leg just buckled beneath me. I felt this pop from within, and collapsed to the ground, screaming in agony. The ball dribbled 10 metres in front of me, and I lay there, crumpled in a heap.
Everyone around me assumed it was a joke. It was such a routine kick, and I have a reputation as something of a practical joker, though I’d never do that in such a serious situation. I stayed down, clutching my groin, and soon people surrounded me. Deb Robinson, our doctor, asked what had happened. I was in such acute pain I could barely speak. I just stammered out that it was my groin.
After the captain’s run the backs do their kicking drills and forwards do lineouts. Then the media come in. Deb realised that media would be there any minute, and wanted me off the field and in the changing room before they arrived. She asked if I could walk. I tried, but couldn’t, and had to be helped off the field. When I sat down, I was in shock. It didn’t seem possible that it could be happening — again. I looked down at my groin and it kept moving, grotesquely, in spasm. Deb felt around it, and I sat there mute. I was in so much pain, and the potential implications for the game and tournament were just starting to dawn.
The rest of the team slowly finished training, and began to filter into the room. I had questions running around in my head: how serious is this? Is this my World Cup over? I had no way of judging the scale of the injury — whether it was just a tear which would heal in a couple of weeks, or a complete rupture. I just didn’t know.
Deb is outstanding in these kind of stressful, emotional occasions. She has an infectious calm about her. She told me not to jump to conclusions; that something had happened, but that we should wait until we’d had scans and a firm diagnosis before we figured out what to do next. I called Honor, who was in Wellington for the game, to let her know about the injury and that I was going to get a scan. Then Deb and I headed to back the hotel to wait until an appointment could be procured. I sat, trying not to worry, until the phone rang that evening, and we headed across to Wellington Hospital, passing waves of supporters on their way to the stadium.
After the scan I sat in the waiting room while Deb and the specialist went through the results. I didn’t want to be involved in the conversation; I just wanted to know if my Cup was over or not. I’m not a religious man, and never have been, but I was praying that it was just a partial tear, that I might somehow recover in time for the final. Eventually they called me through and pulled images up on the screen, and told me the news I’d been dreading: a torn adductor muscle in my groin. It was the adductor longus, a key stabilising muscle which runs from the pubic bone down to the thigh. It would have put a major injury for anyone, but it was particularly serious for kickers — our accuracy relies on the repetition of a very specific action. The longus is the source of a lot of the thigh’s fine motor control. Mine was shot — the MRI showed that the muscle had torn clean off the footplate.
I asked if that was my World Cup over, already knowing the answer. They confirmed it was, that three months was the most optimistic recovery time frame. My heart sank. I said nothing at all.
We got back in the car. Deb sat up front with the liaison officer who’d driven us there. I leaned back and welled up with tears. All my questions were whys: why here? Why now? Most of all: why me? This tournament had meant so much to me, and had just been wrenched away doing something so ordinary, something I’d done dozens of times a day for virtually my entire life. It was a freak injury, one which could’ve happened at any other time and had no impact on my World Cup. Kicking a ball, the action which has brought me so much joy and opportunity, had now snatched away a dream I’d been working towards, in one way or another, my whole career.
Dan Carter: My Story (Mower, $50) is available at Unity Books, the good people who sponsor The Spinoff’s books coverage.
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