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The All Blacks skipper is in line to win the award for a fourth time. First-five Carter has won it once before.
The duo are joined by back-up England No. 10 Owen Farrell and another first-five, the rejuvenated Frederic Michalak of France.
McCaw is the only player to have received the accolade more than once in its 11-year history, having won in 2006, 2009 and 2010. Carter won it in 2005.
France flanker Thierry Dusautoir captured the 2011 award.
IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset said that it had been a difficult choice to select only four candidates.
"As ever, the competition has been fierce and the panel had a tough time deliberating the shortlist from a number of stand-out candidates," Lapasse said. "All four players on the shortlist thoroughly deserve their place after standout performances during the year and consistency in the tough environment that is test rugby."
The winner, chosen by an independent panel of international greats, will be announced on December 3, along with IRB Coach of the Year and IRB Team of the Year. The panel comprises Will Greenwood, Gavin Hastings, Raphael Ibanez, Francois Pienaar, Agustin Pichot, Scott Quinnell, Tana Umaga and Paul Wallace.