When the news broke last October that Dan Carter was to miss the business end of the World Cup through injury, the Shaky Isles were rocked to their core. The vague anxiety that traditionally accompanies a World Cup campaign in New Zealand quickly evolved into borderline panic.
It was a devilishly ironic moment. Graham Henry had a squad of unrivalled depth at his disposal as he sought to end rugby’s most famous drought. Players who would easily walk into the starting fifteen of other major international sides could not even break into a thirty man squad for the All Blacks.
But one position still gave the nation nightmares. Even after a desperate search spanning four long years, the coaching staff had failed to unearth a truly impressive deputy for their star man in the ten jersey.
If Carter had managed to stay fit then that would never have been a problem. Led by the best flyhalf in the world, New Zealand may have negotiated that nerve-racking final against France with a little more aplomb.
Four million mostly innocent people were instead forced to endure another World Cup choke, albeit one that did not quite end in disaster. The one weakness in New Zealand’s much vaunted depth was exposed to near fatal effect.
Unfortunately for the rest of the rugby world, early indications are that the reigning champions will have no such problems with the flyhalf position for their title defense in 2015.
This year’s Super Rugby competition has seen the maturation of not one but two stellar alternatives to Carter, putting the depth issue well and truly to bed. The Chiefs’ Aaron Cruden and the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett have both performed to a level far beyond their tender years.
Cruden in particular has come of age recently, after several erratic seasons had led many to question his credentials as an All Black. His goalkicking has improved markedly, along with his decision-making in general play.
That 24 minute cameo against Ireland in Hamilton was of astounding quality. Combined with the consistency of his provincial season, that lone performance vanquished any lingering doubts surrounding Cruden as a long term replacement for Carter.
Barrett has been similarly impressive, playing at the epicentre of a Wellington team that has surpassed all expectations this season. The farm boy boasts a complete skill set, headlined by an immaculate running game and underlined by an unusual maturity for someone so young.
How strange it is to think that just eight months ago, kiwi fans were panicking over a disturbing lack of quality tens in New Zealand. Now the All Blacks can lay claim to three of the most impressive five-eighths in world rugby.
Dan Carter may not feel threatened by the stellar form of his understudies just yet. But any team planning to compete at the next World Cup should.