Carter signed two-year deal with Kobe Steelers
Moves to Japan from French side Racing 92
Fly-half won 112 caps for All Blacks
It’s boom time for rugby in Japan.
With the World Cup arriving on Japanese soil in 2019, investment in the sport and its profile, at home and abroad, is on the rise.
A number of big-name overseas players have arrived, but none quite like Dan Carter.
The legendary New Zealander is the leading point scorer in the history of international test matches. And at that elite level, only three players have won more often than Carter.
He’s a three-time World Rugby Player of the Year – a record he shares with former teammate Richie McCaw – has 112 caps, and was instrumental in the All Blacks’ 2015 World Cup victory.
Having retired from international duty in 2015, the fly-half, now 35, signed a two-year deal with Kobe Steelers from French Top 14 side Racing 92.
“When I was trying to make a decision of whether to stay in France or look elsewhere … it was a tough decision, but it made so much more sense to be living and playing in Japan,” Carter tells CNN.
“Rugby has taken off there. There’s going to be some huge interest and it’s really going to grow over the next couple of years, leading into the next World Cup. To think that I’ll be living and playing over there for the next couple of years – it’s going to be great.”
Carter’s move hasn’t been without criticism, most notably from Mourad Boudjellal, the outspoken owner of French club Toulon. But he’s by no means alone as an elite rugby player heading to Japan.
Australian Matt Giteau, a rival of Carter for so many years, helped Suntory Sungoliath win the Top League last season, while Carter’s fellow All Blacks Ma’a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams have all worn Japanese club colors.
Meanwhile, the national team has continued to improve. In November last year, the Brave Blossoms narrowly missed out on their first ever victory over France, a late missed conversion meaning the game ended a draw in Paris.
And who could forget the 2015 World Cup when a last-gasp try saw Japan down South Africa 32-34, arguably the greatest upset in rugby’s history. Managed by now-England coach Eddie Jones, Japan stunned the world with a breathless, fast-paced brand of rugby.
That ethos still survives today, and Carter is coming prepared.
“You have to hit the ground running. You have to be fully prepared. The game is probably a lot faster I think in Japan just watching how the international side like the play.
“I might have to do a bit more fitness I think.”
Japan’s Top League has recently introduced a new format of two conferences of 13 rounds with play-offs to determine final standings. Giteau’s Suntory Sungoliath was crowned champion for the fifth time in January.
In 2016, the Sunwolves became the first Japanese side to star in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby tournament, although they’ve struggled, winning just three games over two seasons.
“I don’t really know a lot about the club competition [in Japan],” Carter confesses. “I’ve had a lot of friends play there. Obviously the season structure is different.
“[In France] we are playing with the team 11 months of the year, but in Japan it’s a lot shorter, it’s a lot more focused and you really have to start the first game extremely well.”
It was thought that Carter was among the world’s highest-paid players with Racing 92, reportedly earning over $114,000 a month with the Paris-based club; his signature likely requires significant financial firepower.
With Racing, he won the Top 14 title in 2016, and claimed four Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders. But speak of Carter and his exploits with the All Blacks most likely come to mind.
While an injury prevented him from playing a starring role on home soil in the 2011 World Cup, it was at the 2015 tournament that he was at his brilliant best. He kicked 19 points in a man of the match display against Australia in the final, ending his glittering international career with a record 1,598 points to his name.
But on top of his goal kicking, Carter’s unique skill-set makes him arguably the greatest fly-half to play the game – be it his speed, his ability to break the line, his vision to offload, pick a long pass, or slide a deft kick through a defense.
A New Zealand icon, he knows better than anyone how much the sport means to the country.
“Rugby in New Zealand is like a religion,” says Carter. “Every boy who grows up wants to be an All Black, wants to play rugby … It’s the number one sport by a long way. You know every kid passes a rugby ball around, so it’s part of our blood and it just continues up to the highest level.
“Obviously, you’ve got some great coaching as well, so there’s a real rich history of rugby in New Zealand. You’re wanting to add to that legacy, that history, when it’s your turn to play for the All Blacks.
“You’re wanting to do the history proud, the public proud and you make sure you do everything you possibly can for that little country down at the bottom of the world.”
A little country in size, but certainly not in rugby terms.
Japan, meanwhile, has plenty of growing to do and next year’s World Cup is the perfect opportunity for the Brave Blossoms to show their prowess when the sport’s best players arrive on their doorstep.
Although the likes of Carter increase the profile of rugby in Japan, he’s the first to admit that getting kids excited by the sport is the only way to make sure that it becomes a long-term success.
“I think you can throw money at it and it only goes so far,” he says. “You have to have some general interest from the grassroots … That’s the future of rugby in Asia.
“If you get more children playing rugby, more teenagers playing rugby, that will help develop the national side in years to come.”