WELLINGTON // New Zealand's worst fears were realised when Dan Carter, their chief creator at fly-half, was ruled out of the Rugby World Cup with a groin injury, a bitter setback for the hosts and favourites.
Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach, told a news conference that Carter would take no further part in the tournament because of a serious injury sustained during kicking practice yesterday.
The injury occurred only hours after Carter had been named to captain the All Blacks for the first time in his 84-Test career in the absence of Richie McCaw, who was ruled out of the Canada match with an injured foot.
New Zealanders have always seen an injury to Carter as a worst-case scenario which would heavily damage the All Blacks chances of winning the World Cup for the first time in 24 years.
"It's devastating for Daniel. He's been a world-class player for a long time, probably one of the greatest players ever produced by this country," Henry said. "This was going to be his pinnacle, the Rugby World Cup. We've had a lot of focus on this tournament for the last couple of years and it's devastating he can't be involved in that.
"It's a tragic situation for a highly talented young sportsman. This was his scene really; a World Cup in New Zealand and it was going to be his big occasion."
Henry said Carter would not be feeling sorry for himself, despite the setback.
"He doesn't talk that way, it's the coach talking, so I feel very sad for him," Henry said. "He's the type of guy who will handle this as best he can and he's got a huge strength of character. He's a key All Black, not only on the field as the navigator of this team for a long time, but a key person off it.
"He's got great character and I just feel huge sympathy for him and his situation."
McCaw went to see Carter on Saturday, after the he had "realised the worst news you can get".
"He's pretty devastated it ended like that," McCaw said in a television interview. "But I guess that's sport. It could happen to any one of us any time. From a team point of view, we've just got to keep marching on.
"There's no doubt ... he leaves a big hole. But it doesn't stop the tournament, we've got to carry on."
Carter has scored a world-record 1,250 points in Tests and is regarded as the best fly-half in world rugby. The lack of an adequate replacement, if he was to succumb to injury, has been seen as the Achilles heel of the All Blacks' World Cup campaign.
Carter's only specialist backup in the current All Blacks squad is Colin Slade, a 23-year-old novice who has played in eight matches in a Test career that is less than a year old. Slade's performances for New Zealand, since his debut as a replacement against Australia last year, have generally been nerve-ridden and erratic.
He was due to start New Zealand's final pool match against Canada today, but needs a strong performance to convince the All Blacks selectors that he has the maturity to guide the team in the World Cup's knockout rounds.
If Slade is thought too inexperienced for the job, the No 10 jersey may pass to Piri Weepu, the 52-Test veteran who covers both half-back positions.
Henry announced on Sunday that 22-year-old Aaron Cruden, who has played only six Test matches including five as a replacement, will join New Zealand's 30-man squad in Carter's place.
Carter injured his left groin during goal kicking practise on Saturday. He immediately collapsed on the field in obvious pain and had to be assisted to the dressing rooms.
Deb Robinson, the All Blacks doctor, said a scan revealed Carter had torn the adductor longus tendon.
"We had a scan done last night and unfortunately it has confirmed he has a significant left groin injury," Robinson said.
"At the moment the plan is that he'll come to Auckland with us tomorrow and we'll seek a specialist opinion about his management options. Surgery may be an option, but we obviously haven't had that opinion yet, and when we do, we'll come to some conclusions after that."
Henry said the All Blacks needed to "show strength," both to support Carter and to move on in the tournament in his absence. New Zealand has already qualified for the quarter-finals but have counted on Carter's experience to steady them in the pressure matches of the tournament's knock-out rounds.
"The group is obviously very shattered with this news, but they are also a very resilient group of people focused on doing this job right," Henry said.
"We are all obviously devastated for Daniel. He has worked so hard to be at a peak for Rugby World Cup. We will rally around him and pull together as a team.
"We need to move on as well. We have been dealt the cards we have got and it is very important that we play them superbly. It is obviously a tragedy but we just need to show strength in this situation."