All Blacks reserve fly-half Colin Slade has the backing of coaches, players and fans to cover the loss of injured playmaker Dan Carter as the top-ranked team seeks its first Rugby World Cup title in 24 years.
“Going forward, Colin Slade’s the boy,” All Blacks head coach Graham Henry told reporters after New Zealand’s 79-15 win over Canada in Wellington yesterday. “He just needs more football, so the more times we can get him out there, the better he’s going to be.”
Carter, Test rugby’s leading points scorer, was ruled out of the 20-nation tournament yesterday after tearing a tendon in his groin during kicking practice on the eve of the game. Bookmakers including Sportingbet Australia and New Zealand’s TAB eased their odds of the host nation lifting the Webb Ellis Cup after the injury. The All Blacks are still favored to win.
Slade, who turns 24 on Oct. 10, has played nine times for the All Blacks and was starting his third game since making his debut 13 months ago. He had his first clearing kick charged down and kicked four of eight conversions and a penalty before being replaced after 65 minutes.
“He’s inexperienced and it did show through, but apart from that he did quite well,” Bronwyn Wilson, an All Blacks fan from the North Island town of Marton, said outside the team’s Wellington hotel. “Dan Carter is one player out of the 22. I think there is too much emphasis on him being missing.”
New Zealand next faces Argentina on Oct. 9 in the quarterfinals in Auckland and will now try to end its World Cup title drought without a player who has amassed a record 1,250 points in his 85 Test matches.
Carter today urged fans to get behind the team as it enters the knockout phase.
“I would encourage everyone to move on, I have,” he said at a televised news conference from Auckland, which he arrived at on crutches. “We’ve had great support and now we’re in the playoffs it’s going to be even more important that continues.”
Carter said the injury, which happened with his final practice kick of the session, was “gut-wrenching” and frustrating. The team is capable of advancing and had even discussed options should he get injured, he said.
“The All Blacks are still the side to beat but they’re suddenly looking vulnerable following the loss of their game breaker,” said Sportingbet Australia Chief Executive Officer Michael Sullivan. “After looking invincible the Kiwis now look well and truly beatable.”
Sportingbet Australia rates New Zealand the 17-20 favorite ahead of 6-1 chances Australia and South Africa.
Opponents say the All Blacks, who topped their five-team group with the maximum 20 points from four victories, will adapt to being without Carter, 29. New Zealand won the two pool matches Carter missed, also beating Japan 83-7 with Slade starting in the playmaking role.
“The All Blacks’ way of playing is greater and bigger than one player,” Argentina captain Felipe Contepomi told reporters. “Dan Carter is No. 1 in the world but I think the All Blacks have a lot to offer without him.”
Although Carter’s loss is “massive,” the All Blacks haven’t had a chance to properly assess its impact because it occurred so close to yesterday’s game, according to Slade. Aaron Cruden will take Carter’s place in the 30-man squad.
“No doubt in the next few days it will hit home that he’s not going to be with us, and leading the team,” Slade told reporters. “Everyone is really disappointed for Dan but I obviously had a task to focus on and that was to go out there and assume his position and direct the team.”
Just 29 percent of 11,000 respondents to an informal New Zealand Herald website poll wanted Slade picked for the quarterfinal. Fifty six percent picked half-back Piri Weepu to be Carter’s replacement.
Slade’s “getting a lot of talk comparing the two of us and things like that but he’s a great player,” said Carter. “He deserves his spot and now’s his opportunity to go out there and play his game.”
Slade should be happy with his performance yesterday, said Andrew Hore, who captained the All Blacks against Canada after regular skipper Richie McCaw withdrew on the eve of the match with a foot injury.
“He’s got big shoes to fill and he ran the game pretty well,” Hore said. “We didn’t help him too much. If the other 14 lads out on the field do their jobs, he can do his.”
The All Blacks won their only World Cup in 1987 when the tournament was last played in New Zealand. Since then, they’ve lost a final, three semifinals and a quarterfinal against France four years ago when Carter left the game injured.
The squad will be thinking about Carter and his absence in coming days, said All Blacks forward Ali Williams.
“It sucks,” Williams told reporters. “He’s a best mate. He’s a buddy on the bus and not to have him there is not really fair.”