Rugby makes men. Women too these days, and fine women they are, but still overwhelmingly, it makes men.
There is no place to hide in a rugby club. Rugby relentlessly takes the disparate parts and moulds them into a cohesive whole.
The arrogant are taught humility. The loose cannons are brought to heel. The vain have their good looks blunted, and the ugly find a place where they are revered for their courage and not their appearance.
Over time, the sport of rugby works on personalities the same way a glacier works on a rocky outcrop. It grinds the outcrop down and removes the rough edges. In so doing, it reveals the pleasant subtleties in the strata.
In the beginning, such a rocky outcrop was Tom Carter, the Sydney University and Waratahs stalwart who played his 200th grade game and 175th first grade game for University last weekend.
Carter has at times in his career held the title of the ‘least liked player in the Shute Shield’. Certainly he is a member of the ‘least liked’ club, Sydney University, which can’t have helped matters. The dislike at times spilled over into his career at the Waratahs, and the emotional and hot-blooded Carter was low-hanging fruit for the dullard keyboard warriors and internet trolls.
As an example, a minor brain snap against the Reds in 2011, which did not result in, but simply accompanied, an embarrassing Waratahs last-minute loss, made Carter rugby public enemy number 1. Even commentator Greg Martin eagerly laid into Carter, caustically and disgracefully describing him as “a fairly ordinary conveyance for the Waratahs for the last four years”.
YouTube offers up such gleeful titles as “Tom Carter gets bitchslapped” and “Tom Carter versus the Reds – fail”. It is inevitable that when a forum subject turns to Carter, a contributor delightedly recycles a clip of Carter getting walloped by Eastwood’s Gareth Palamo in a Shute Shield final way back in 2006. For some small souls, the ill-feeling has festered for a decade.
As such, few of the critics will initially be saddened by the news that this year’s Shute Shield finals series will be Carter’s last. It’s odd that despite a record that most players would envy – Australian Seven, Australian under 19’s, 76 Super Rugby matches, 95 points in tries for the Waratahs, and 200 games for University – Carter seems destined to be remembered by parts of the rugby public for his apparent disposition rather than his actual, and significant, contribution.
A wise man once said, “If you have minimal ability but hang on for long enough through perseverance and grit, you eventually achieve some things in life.”
And if the naysayers agree with nothing else, they would be forced to agree (perhaps through slightly clenched teeth) that Tom Carter has at the very least been in it for the long haul. 175 first grade games don’t come easily to anyone. Neither do 76 Super Rugby matches.
Few would have considered these numbers. Perhaps they are worth considering. Aside from pure matches played, Carter is 17th on the all-time Waratahs point-scoring table – despite having never kicked a goal.
He holds the record at Sydney University for tries in first grade, scoring a double against Norths last weekend to hit the 90-try record. He is one of the few to play against the British Lions in any capacity, and one of the genuine few to score two tries against them in one match.
It is a career worth noting, although the cynics will counter with terms like ‘one dimensional’ and go on to note the talent which surrounded Carter at University.
Such criticism of Carter’s apparent simplicity as a player doesn’t often seem to make much sense. After all, he didn’t pick himself for the Waratahs 76 times. If someone has to be blamed, at least blame the coach. All the player can do is play the best he can with what he’s got when he gets picked.
Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. The laypersons form of this law is “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one”.
So when faced with the dilemma of why the Waratahs continued to pick an impulsive, straight-running, hard-tackling centre with moderate pace and a not-very-deceptive step, pick the simple answer. The coach thought he was best for the job.
This is because, inevitably, the coach and the players in the team know more than the man in the stands. Only they see the work that goes on during the week, the plays far off the ball that only get noticed during the video analysis, and the effect of the player on their teammates.
Every team needs workers and Carter has always been a champion grafter. Players with just-adequate pace and footwork don’t score bucketloads of tries unless they are relentless supporters of the ball carrier, persistent pressurers in defence, and untiring kick chasers.
None of those are glamour jobs, so only a few special players make them their stock in trade. It takes ticker and a certain bloody mindedness to continue to chase the one-percenters for 15 years.
As for the casual observers of video clips, they unfortunately only see what they want to see.
In the 2006 Palamo clip, they see Tom Carter trucking the ball into the teeth of a rabid defence and getting completely t-boned. Few of them stop chortling long enough to see Carter get to his feet, take his place in the defensive line and pressure the kicker. As commentator Jim Maxwell said at the time, “He takes some hurting”. Teammates know how tough Carter is and he gives young players confidence in a robust contest.
Of course, none of the criticism is really about Tom Carter the player. Players with supposedly modest talents rarely get pilloried; they just don’t get noticed. Carter certainly had enough talent to be noticed, but it was his volatile temper and willingness to get in the faces of opponents that really riled the haters.
Funnily enough, no one is more aware of the frailties of Tom Carter than, well, Tom Carter. In an erudite and touching open letter to the Sydney University community before his milestone last week, Carter addressed his past coaches:
“I can’t thank you enough for the lessons that you have taught me about life and the game but probably more importantly, I thank you for tolerating my deficiencies – both playing and social skills – and for tolerating the outrageous carry on at times.”
After being replaced late in the match, Carter visited the Norths bench. He shook the hands of all of the Norths players, coaches, strappers and assorted hangers on. He then worked his way back to the University bench and congratulated all of his teammates on the victory.
As he did so, a nearby father of one of the young grade players, a schoolboy in his first year of university, expressed his admiration for everything Carter had done to support and teach his son during his transition to grade football:
“He’s just been amazing. He’s taught these young guys a lot and given them enormous confidence. They really love him, his influence on the club is huge.”
For their part, Carter’s teammates showed their appreciation in their own way. Immediately the match had finished and the Norths players were clapped from the field, players from all grades, some of whom had waited several hours after their own games, surrounded the veteran centre and sang the University song.
It was an appropriate way to thank a player who was more Land Cruiser than Ferrari. Not flashy or brilliant especially, but tenacious, tireless and passionate to a fault. Rugby needs more of them.
As for the occasional niggle and insanity, Steve Jobs said it best, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently.”
His teammates will smile and say Jobs might have been talking about Tom Carter.