Hamilton, New Zealand – All Blacks star Dan Carter goes into Saturday's Rugby Championship Test against Argentina anointed as the top flyhalf in rugby history yet under growing pressure to hold down his place.
The world's leading points scorer returns to the All Blacks after another injury-plagued year in which he has missed four of five Tests played and allowed the chasing pack of flyhalves to grow in confidence.
Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett had time in command as did fourth-string pivot Tom Taylor, with the All Blacks winning all five matches against France and Australia.
Carter is renowned for his all-round game – accurate kicking, strong running, powerful fend and fearless defence – leading All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to rate him as “certainly the best (flyhalf) in the history of the game”.
But Hansen is also full of praise for the way Carter's understudies have filled the role in his absence.
“That creates a bit of depth and it also creates a bit of pressure on Dan and it will be interesting to see how Dan takes it,” Hansen said.
“You don't want him looking over his shoulder. You want him looking forward and trying to improve his own game.”
It's a scenario the 31-year Carter is well aware of as he attempts to nurse his body through to the 2015 World Cup.
He was denied a place in the 2011 final, won by the All Blacks 8-7 over France, because of a groin injury and was sidelined for part of last year's Rugby Championship series against Australia, Argentina and South Africa.
But despite limited Test time, he is determined to stamp his authority again on the game.
“Midway through the year like we are now, and to have only really trained with the team fully for maybe a week and a half, has been a bit of a challenge,” he conceded.
“But I have to draw on my experience of having been in situations before when I've had injuries that kept me out of Test matches then returned and played well so I'll draw on that experience to give me confidence this week.”
He also acknowledged the pressure he is under from the strong group of challengers for his position, which also includes another World Cup performer, Colin Slade, who is now ranked as the fifth pivot in New Zealand.
“You never take your position for granted. It gives you confidence to see we have the depth there. Those guys have made the most of their opportunities. It's now about me doing the same.”
Saturday's match will be Carter's 96th international and his duties have been extended with the need to guide rookie Francis Saili through his debut Test as he comes in for the injured Ma'a Nonu.
Outside Saili is another All Blacks veteran, Conrad Smith, playing his 72nd Test, and he believes Carter will make a seamless return.
“I know once he gets to the big stage that's what he loves. For him, it's been a wait and I know that'll bring the best out in him,” he said.
Carter is rugby's leading scorer with 1,399 points amassed from 29 tries, 246 conversions, 248 penalties and six drop goals.
Of the 95 Tests he has played so far, he has only suffered defeat 11 times. – Sapa-AFP