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QUESTION for you: who's more influential in their respective sport at present, Lionel Messi or Dan Carter? When I mused on this with a couple of colleagues the other day we came down on the side of Messi, but not by any massive distance.

The comparison is a worthy one if for no other reason than both men are out on their own as the greatest modern-day exponents of their craft. Both are playmakers of the highest order. Both play for the best teams in the world, though in Messi's case that's a club side, Barcelona, and in Carter's it's a nation, New Zealand. Both have a swagger about them, and make it look as though they have more time than anyone else on the field when they have the ball. Both sit astride their teams as the central hub of attacking strategy.

Both, rather conveniently for the purposes of this piece, are left-footed.

Messi's honours with Barca since he first broke into their first team in the 2004-05 season are simply too numerous to mention, though three Champions League titles stand out as a highlight.

Of course, he hasn't been able to replicate that level of success with Argentina, though he did win Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008.

But in football these days, clubs are king. And because it is a more global sport than rugby, there are far more genuine contenders to win the World Cup every four years.

Carter? Four Super Rugby winners' medals with Canterbury Crusaders, and with the All Blacks there's the small matter of seven Tri-Nations titles (including this year's four-team Rugby Championship), two home nations Grand Slams, a World Cup and a 3-0 Lions series victory in 2005.

There's even a Top 14 championship on his cv with Perpignan, though injury curtailed his contribution to just five matches.

Because of his position in the pivotal role, he's been the conductor of much of the above success rather than a mere contributor. And anyone who watches Messi play for Barca will know that he is the round-ball equivalent.

Look, any comparison of two guys in different sports can never be scientific, it's the stuff of pub debates and will never be any more than that.

But the point is that when New Zealand come to Cardiff next weekend, we are going to be welcoming rugby's Lionel Messi to the Millennium Stadium, a 30-year-old who has been the superstar of his sport for the last decade.

Those who have sought to downplay Carter's talent have pointed to the fact that he's spent his career playing behind dominant packs, but when did Messi ever play lower league football? In other words, to earn the right to be surrounded by the best, you yourself have to be the best. Carter is.

Given what rugby has become, a sport shackled by over-coaching and pre-programmed structures rather than the spontaneity of old, Carter is more reliant on what those around him do and thus more constrained than Messi, who seems to have a licence to roam as he sees fit, will ever be.

Take the Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal for Sweden against England in midweek; that's the sort of improvisation that is dying in rugby, and when Shane Williams retired from the first-class game it faded even further from view.

And yet Carter gets closer than anyone to reviving it. His break for one of New Zealand's first-half tries against Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend was reminiscent of Barry John in his pomp. It was snake-hipped, and everything to do with spotting what was on and having the courage and sheer ability to execute a piece of play that carved a breakthrough.

In one match, last season, a television camera followed Carter for a full 10 minutes, even when the ball was well away from him, and the amount of scanning that he got through was immense.

Scanning? Merely looking around the pitch for areas of potential opposition vulnerability, ensuring that, mentally, he was at least two steps ahead of the defence if and when he received possession.

For me, that's the abiding weakness of the present Wales team.

Physically they bow to no-one. When they are at their best, they win the collisions, their defence is watertight, their set-piece is rock solid and Leigh Halfpenny kicks his goals.

All the things, a pragmatist would argue, that you need to succeed in today's unforgiving Test arena.

But ask yourself why the side cannot take that next step against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa? Could it be because they just don't have the field craft to produce something out of the ordinary at the right time? I'm not talking about kamikaze risks, I mean the sort of thing Scott Williams did at Twickenham last season, when his kick-and-chase won a tight game and the Triple Crown.

Great, but that was just about the only piece of improvisation we saw from Wales throughout that campaign and there's been nothing of the sort since, the turgidity of the Argentina match highlighting that.

After you have matched the best teams in the gym, in your mastery of the basics, in the battle of the collisions, those Williams-type moments are what get you across the winning line.

It's about spotting things, having an innate sense that something is definitely on and then the skill to make it happen. It's not about Plan A, it's more about Plan Z.

That's what separates teams like Wales from the Dan Carters of this world.

That's why Wales will lose, yet again, to New Zealand next weekend.

That's the reason on Saturday we will get the privilege of watching rugby's answer to Lionel Messi.


Barca's Lionel Messi

New Zealand's Dan Carter lands a penalty during his masterclass against Scotland last weekend
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 18, 2012
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