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Mesmerising stand-off Dan Carter is All Blacks' driving force

It is worryingly close to 40 years since I pitched up at Murrayfield for the first time.

Geoff Cross scsores Scotland's second try. Picture: Nick Ponty
Geoff Cross scsores Scotland's second try. Picture: Nick Ponty

The occasion in question was Scotland versus New Zealand, December 16, 1972. Sadly, my debut has been consistently overlooked by leading rugby historians who, for some mystifying reason, have tended to concentrate on the fact that Andy Irvine and Ian McGeechan were also making their first appearances in the national stadium that day.

As the presence of McGeechan and Irvine might indicate, Scotland had a decent enough team that day. The props, Ian Mighty Mouse McLauchlan and Sandy Carmichael, had snarled with the best of them on the Lions tour to New Zealand the previous year, and you wouldn't take a second row made up of gordon Brown and Al McHarg lightly either. Billy Steele and Jim Renwick buzzed about in the backline, and the team was led by the great, gallumphing figure that was Peter Brown.

And yet Scotland lost 14-9. On paper, it might look like a close match, but on the Murrayfield grass it was anything but. Even to a starry-eyed youth who had only a rudimentary knowledge of the game it was blindingly obvious that the All Blacks were a different race of men. They could have won the game by a street.

"Play was mainly confined to the Scottish half for the powerful and active New Zealand forwards dominated play in the loose," wrote Sandy Thorburn, for many years official historian to the Scottish Rugby Union. Thorburn was a devoted and assiduous chronicler of Scotland games, but he could have used that line many times in the 107-year history of this fixture. Come to think of it, a few of us were thinking about dragging it out again in the critical moments of this game.

Most of those were in the second quarter. The mantra from the Scottish players was that they had to make sure they were still in the game after 20 minutes, and with a 7-3 lead as that point loomed they had every reason to feel proud of themselves. What they seemed to forget, though, was that they had to stay in the game for the next 20 minutes as well. What actually happened then is that they were dynamited right out of it.

Dan Carter lit that fuse in what was arguably his best game in an All Black jersey since he destroyed the British and Irish Lions single-handedly in the second Test in Wellington in 2005. But while Dancing Dan was parading his genius, the rampaging New Zealand forwards did massive damage all around the pitch. They ran hard and with purpose deep into the Scottish 22, and they offloaded the ball with improbable dexterity.

Which is very much the All Blacks way. Since shaking off the monkey on the back that was their reputation as serial World Cup chokers, New Zealand have gone from strength to strength – and then some. When the young Jack Nicklaus burst on the golf scene half a century ago, the great Bobby Jones said that the prodigy "played a game with which I am not familiar." A few old rugby sages could probably say something similar of the 2012 All Blacks.

This was far from being their best performance of a stellar year, but their second-quarter display might just have been their best 20 minutes of rugby since they lodged the Webb Ellis trophy in that space in the trophy cabinet that had stayed embarrassingly empty for the previous two decades. They moved the ball sublimely, the wizardry of Carter ushering them along, and they demolished Scotland on the scoreboard. The Scots were guilty of falling off tackles and giving the All Blacks too much space, but if there is a side that could have lived with New Zealand in those minutes it is certainly not to be found on this planet.

"He was pretty handy with the ball and pretty handy with the boot," said New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, a man who is pretty handy at understatement. "The only thing he did wrong was give away an intercept try but that was a reflection of the way he was taking the ball to the line."

And the chances are that Carter will be causing a lot of problems for a good few years yet. The national hoodoo may have been banished on that mesmerising evening in Auckland just over a year ago, but Carter still carries one of his own. The fly-half was cruising towards his destiny in the 2011 World Cup, but it was snatched away when he collapsed in agony on a training pitch early in the tournament. Somehow, the All Blacks scraped over the finish line without him, but they would have won by a far greater distance if Carter had been in their side.

So 2015 looms before him. On Friday, Carter said dutiful things about only focusing on the next game, but he admitted that the World Cup is unfinished business for him. If all goes according to plan over the next three years, it is staggering to think what marks he could leave on the game. As things stand, he has 93 caps and 1381 Test points to his name, and he could raise those tallies to astronomical levels.

But then, the All Blacks are used to setting different standards. For as long as I've been watching this game, that's how things have worked. At the end of yesterday's match, a colleague turned to me and said: "Twenty minutes of madness," to explain Scotland's defeat.

"Forty years, mate," I replied. "Forty year and counting."

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