The small-town values that made Dan Carter
When Christchurch was struck by an earthquake in February, Neville Carter packed up his firefighting equipment and headed for the carnage. "As everyone was leaving the city, I was heading in," says Neville. "People would put their thumbs up from underneath the rubble and the crowd would roar. But we knew there were heaps of others."
Neville has a tighter handle on the notion of heroism than most - but he is also acutely aware that heroism comes in many different guises.
So while there is no shrine, as yet, to the brave men and women who risked their lives to save others, he fully understands why the small country town of Southbridge is one giant shrine to his son, a certain Daniel William Carter.
"Southbridge is such a small community," says the town rugby club's manager Chris 'Roundy' McMillan, "so people get very emotional when they see Dan playing for the All Blacks. Everybody knows him - people might have taught him at school or coached him. The kids just adore him, and you should see some of the old boys' faces when he's about - they adore him, too."
The perfect 10? Carter carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. Photo: Getty
McMillan is the man at the controls of the Carter industry, an industry the people of Southbridge hoped would see World Cup fever visited upon their settlement of 750 souls. But when the earthquake struck, the Canterbury region suddenly found itself left out of proceedings.
"We had so many things that were going to happen," says Neville. "We were looking forward to hosting the French and having 'Carter Country Tours', bus loads coming out from Christchurch. But we carried on with Plan B, the 'Carter Country Experience': campervans on site, people from all over coming through. We're the fifth oldest rugby club in New Zealand, founded in 1876, so apart from Daniel, there's an awful lot of heritage."
The handsome glass cabinet built to house Carter's memorabilia is testament to one of the stellar All Black careers: an IRB player of the year trophy, three hulking man-of-the-match awards from Tests at Twickenham ("England can't be that good if he's got three of those," quips Neville), a Lions shirt worn by Jonny Wilkinson. But there, almost hidden among the Carter paraphernalia, is the one thing the superstar fly-half does not have and the one thing he covets most - a World Cup winner's medal.
The owner of that medal is a walking, talking exemplar of the amateur age - Albert 'Albie' Anderson. Fresh off his dairy farm, the Canterbury legend - owner of six All Blacks caps and a pair of hands like baseball mitts - reacts to most of my questions with a look that says: "Aah, mate, that was all in the past." "How do you win a World Cup?" I ask, unperturbed. "Play hard, I'spose," answers Anderson. "It was a few years ago now - '87, wasn't it?"
"You don't live on those sorts of things," he adds. "In awe of me? The current players wouldn't even know me. They're not worried about some old fart from 24 years ago. And round here they have their heroes cleaning the bloody windows - inside and outside!"
While Anderson's window-washing complaints are strictly tongue in cheek, the contrast between 'Albie's table' - on which sits his medal, an All Blacks cap and a ball signed by himself and the rest of the fabled World Cup-winning team - and the Carterana all around it tells its own story.
"We didn't even get a picture of us with the cup," says Anderson. "We won it on the Saturday, packed up on the Sunday and I was at work on the farm at 8 o'clock on Monday morning. I'll have a chip on my shoulder 'til the day I die [about not playing in the professional era]. Mind you, Dan was down here the other night with Jimmy Cowan and Ali Williams and I'm told they were having a pretty close look at that table."
Anderson, a member of the All Blacks' World Cup-winning squad in 1987, with his medal
Carter was indeed back home last Saturday, his visit coinciding with that of 10 Irishmen, in town to get a glimpse of the famous man's trophies, signed jerseys and boots, but not necessarily the man himself. Says Neville: "To come to this small town and have three All Blacks walk in, well, they thought they were in heaven.
"But one thing Daniel's been taught is that Southbridge is where he comes from, so any chance to get out here he does. This is his wee retreat. People will come in, say 'how you going Dan?' and just have a cup of coffee and a bit of a yarn. You've got to have that balance, because the pressure must be horrific at times."
Behind us, Carter's sister Sarah is busy painting campervan signs. "Still the same old Dan?" I ask her. "He has to be," she replies, "I told him if he gets a big head he'd be in a lot of trouble." But when your little brother is plastered all over New Zealand wearing just his pants and a Mona Lisa smile, it must be a jaw-dropping, head-shaking experience at times.
"A couple of years ago, Daniel phoned his mother and told her to go for a drive down Durham Street in Christchurch and she looked up and nearly crashed the car," says Neville. "There he was, on a massive billboard, eight storeys tall, just in his underwear. He's on the back of buses, all over supermarkets, but we've sort of got used to it now."
McMillan drives me out to the Carter family house to see the now famous rugby posts on the perfectly-manicured front lawn, erected by Neville when Dan was eight and where the little kid with the wand of a left foot honed his considerable natural talent.
"He used to kick the ball over the house and break a few windows, so we decided to buy some land next door and build some goalposts," says Neville. "They were full-size, but even at eight he could kick over them quite easily. Then, when he was 12, he decided he wanted to be an All Black, so I told him, 'we'll do everything for you, but you've got to be self-motivated, you've got to do the hard yards'.
"And now, he doesn't just want to be an All Black, he wants to be a great All Black, so he still has to work harder than everyone else.
"The Wednesday before the World Cup I went up to Auckland and we went over the park and spent an hour-and-a-half kicking the ball, although it was supposed to be his day off. A couple of times I didn't pass him the ball as well as he would have liked and he gave me a bit of stick. So I said to him, 'it's not the passer, it's the kicker - keep your head down, drive through, and you'll be right'. And he knocked over four in a row."
Throughout our chat, Neville, unlike the chest-beating, puffed-up dads you will see on touchlines across England on any given Sunday, remains endearingly understated about his son's significantly greater achievements. But when talk turns to his off-field activities, that's when Neville beams.
"After the earthquake, Daniel was staying with us for a few nights and he told us he had an appointment in town," says Neville. "But we found out he spent the day going round three retirement villages. He called in to see how they were, had a cup of coffee, found out how their knitting was going. We only knew about it because one of the old guys who used to play rugby out here rang me to say Daniel had just dropped in.
"Those old people had been through a horrific experience, so for an All Black to drop in and say g'day and have a yarn with them, it put a smile back on their faces. We're more proud of the things he does behind the scenes than what he does on the rugby field."
As I am about to leave, a couple of Aussie fans wander in, order a beer and take a pew. "How many All Blacks you got?" one of them barks. "Just the two," says McMillan, as laconically as he can muster. The Aussie looks singularly unimpressed. Maybe pop by again in another five weeks, mate, when I strongly suspect you'll get to clap your eyes on another World Cup winner's medal.