Daniel Carter announced his retirement 18 years after he made his debut for the All Blacks on the same weekend that five players were sent off in the round of Premiership matches, a record for the tournament, as part of a crackdown on dangerous play that also saw a red card in each of the first two Six Nations weekends.
The blitz of red cards is part of the drive to reduce head injuries by improving player behaviour. The question is, why did it come late to the Premiership, given that nine reds were shown in the second and third rounds of the Top 14 in France, and 12 in the opening five, a period in which 57 players were also sent to the sin-bin.
A side-effect is that it may dilute the machismo that has developed during rugby’s professional era when words and phrases such as big hits, physicality, bulking up, winning the collisions and brutality became everyday. Carter was a throwback to a time when greater emphasis was placed on bustle than muscle; the fly-half brought an elegance and refinement to an increasingly ugly sport.
From the moment he made his Test debut against Wales in Hamilton in 2003, scoring a try and showing his ghost-like running, drawing tacklers with an effortless grace and leaving them clutching air, he held a candle for those who were drawn to the game because of its contrast between the raw contest at forward and the array of skills behind.
The distinction became blurred as defences fanned out in a line and few forwards committed themselves to a ruck. Outside-halves became judged by their tackle count more than the way they led their side’s attack, but Carter was different. He was no doormat, but he did not measure himself by the number of bigger opponents he felled; tackling was part of his brief, but not of paramount importance.
The way New Zealand played, much like France under Fabien Galthié, suited Carter. They did not take play through laborious phases, but used ball-carriers to test out defences around the fringes and kicked if they failed to make ground. It was on turnover possession and poorly directed kicks that they often looked to attack, moments when the opposing defence was not organised, and the memory of Carter is either of him sidestepping away from a tackler or taking the outside shoulder and disappearing in a shimmer. He was far from slow, but his weapon was deception rather than flat-out speed.
Getting Carter was far easier said than accomplished. His acme may have been the series against the 2005 Lions, but even in his final year with Racing, carrying a body worn down by injury and time, his appreciation of time and space still marked him out. He still made the occasional outside break, but his ability to hold a defender and put a teammate into space remained until the end. His vision never dimmed.
Carter was an exceptional player with the attributes of a Welsh maestro of yore, self-confident, strutting and slippery, but he became an exception as the sport became preoccupied by size, with young backs constantly being told to get in the gym and return when they had added a few pounds of muscle. It may be players who are receiving red cards now, but they are victims as well as culprits, conditioned to clatter into opponents at full pelt.
It was difficult to feel sympathy for Peter O’Mahony when he was sent off for charging into a ruck during Ireland’s international in Cardiff. He not only extended his arm as he prepared to get Tomas Francis out of the way, making contact with his opponent’s face, but the Wales prop was not preventing the release of the ball having been pushed sideways by Johnny Sexton, and O’Mahony only remained on his feet because he supported his body weight on the prop.
The Scotland prop Zander Fagerson was sent off against Wales the following week for charging into a ruck and making contact with the head of the Wales prop Wyn Jones. His arm was also extended, but he made contact with the top of his back as he ducked underneath his opponent. He was attempting to release the ball, which had been blocked by the Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones, and Scotland were initially awarded the penalty, but again Fagerson was not intent on staying on his feet.
He got a longer suspension than O’Mahony because he contested the red card, but given the crackdown on challenges where contact is made with the head and the frenzy at the breakdown where the law is not always enforced in the quest for continuity, there should be mitigating factors above pleading guilty, saying sorry and having a good disciplinary record (which O’Mahony didn’t anyway). The law says that a player arriving at a ruck must enter above waist height, bind on to a teammate and stay on their feet while attempting to move away an opponent. If your teammates are on the floor, as is often the case, it is difficult to make an impact legally.
Charging into a ruck at speed sacrifices control and puts players at the mercy of events. The issue is not so much the laws but coaching. For too long the focus has been on making players bigger and heavier rather than their individual qualities. It has bred conformity and obedience. The game should be about balance, ball-winners on the one hand and ball-users on the other.
Carter was good enough to rise above it all, although at Racing 92 he said he despaired of the lack of input players had. The flurry of red cards provides an opportunity for the balance to be restored so that the Carters of the future are allowed to flourish rather than have to spend hours each week pumping iron. Big hits need to become as socially acceptable as smoking.
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