Wellington, New Zealand – Star flyhalf Dan Carter is expected to start in New Zealand's Test against Japan in Tokyo on Saturday, ending a six weeks injury layoff and facing an unprecedented challenge to his place as the All Blacks' No. 1.
New Zealand seemed likely to play many of its more inexperienced players in Saturday's test - their first against Japan outside a World Cup - and to save players such as Carter for forthcoming matches against France, England and Ireland.
But Carter's latest injury setback has changed that plan, with him now likely to play at least half a game against Japan before starting against both France and England.
New Zealand currently has an abundance of talented flyhalves and Carter's absences have allowed those rivals to challenge his pre-eminence in the position.
Carter was once, indisputably, the best flyhalf in world rugby. He was acknowledged as such with International Rugby Board player of the year awards in 2005, after leading New Zealand to a cleansweep of the British and Irish Lions, and again in 2012.
But he lost the chance to emphasize the point when injury wrecked his 2011 World Cup and in the two years since he has been fit to play only 12 of New Zealand's 28 tests. New Zealanders once thought Carter irreplaceable but, confronted with necessity, they have developed an outstanding group of young flyhalves who have grasped the opportunity to show their talent when injuries have kept Carter on the sideline.
New Zealand has used five flyhalves in tests this season - Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Tom Taylor and Colin Slade - and Cruden and Barrett particularly are now nipping at the senior player's heals.
“It is great to see the talent coming through and that adds to my motivation and wanting to get out there and to play,” Carter said. “People are asking me if this is the end of me. It would be a different story if I was fully fit and they were still going with the other guys.
“That is the challenge for me and the depth of New Zealand rugby is really strong which I guess it hasn't always been in certain positions. If you look at the bigger picture, it is great for the game and, as one of the guys wanting the jersey, it helps motivate me.”
Head coach Steve Hansen is thought to still rank Carter as New Zealand's No. 1 flyhalf and is prepared to hold a place for him through his frequent injuries. Carter knows that can't happen forever but he also accepts that after his last, long absence he might take time to find his best form.
“When I return, I understand that I am not going to change the world,” he said. “It does take a few games to get back into your groove.
“When I do play, I have to make sure I nail my core roles. If you do that, you build confidence.” – Sapa-AP