Southbridge club celebrates Carter's success

The 24-year-old landscape architect who was to mark arguably the best rugby player in the world arrived to training by minivan.

He stepped out into the floodlit night fog, onto the sodden earth of North Canterbury's Omihi, and tried to contain his fear.

It was not that Jack Earl was worried that he might be shown up on the pitch by Dan Carter. It was that, on the All Black's first match in six months, Earl might accidentally injure him.

"Gosh," the Glenmark first five-eight said, "Imagine having all of New Zealand after you."

When Earl began the season, having to mark one of the best players in the world was not his concern. It was about getting match fit.

"I'm trying not to focus on DC himself - he's got more things to worry about like the bounce of the ball. It's not all going to go his way, right?"

Carter, who has been on sabbatical since earning his 100th test cap against England in London last November, will start at first five-eighth in the Luisetti Seeds division one play-off match when Southbridge host Glenmark this afternoon.

But that rostering decision was not without its issues. The captain of Southbridge, Shannon Donald, also plays the position. He has decided to move one position out.

"The things you've got to do, I suppose," Donald said.

The preparations in the small Canterbury Plains township were already underway earlier this week. This was "Carter Country". It has two signs to say so. It is the country with other signs declaring "$1 bags of manure" and "Sweet Meats Butchery". It has a population of little over 700 and a main street of a half dozen shops. But today it will be home to thousands of spectators - likely the biggest turnout in the club's history.

"It will be a special day," said Neville Carter, Dan's father. "Dan's been looking forward to getting back into rugby for a few weeks."

It will be the first time since Dan was 17 that he has played with the senior team on his home ground - where he started his career as a six-year-old, kicking goals from the sideline.

"He was just going out there to have fun back then," Neville said. "He just wanted to play with his mates."

On Saturday there will be a small cohort of players still on the seniors team that Dan played with all those years ago.

"They will enjoy that."

Neville will have the dual responsibility of manning the bar and coaching the Division 2 team for the day's curtain-raiser.

His son's shrine will be on display - a collection of dozens of items of memorabilia spanning Dan Carter's Canterbury Crusaders and All Blacks career.

There is Johnny Wilkinson's jersey when they played each other on the 2005 Lions Tour, the boots emblazoned with his son's name made specially for him on his 100th All Blacks cap, and his 2011 Rugby World Cup Winners medal.

There is another board of Carter's school age rugby team photos with the words: "Live the dream and be an All Black like Dan Carter" running across the top.

That was Neville's hope - to inspire other young players at the club to follow in his son's footsteps.

Club halfback Michael Sheat was alongside Carter when he made his comeback for Southbridge from an achilles heel injury in 2009.

The crowds back then at Hornby made it an interesting experience.

"It was a pretty special day. Most of the guys who played that game still talk about it now."

It had become part of the club's mythology - when Southbridge's favourite son returned to his roots.

Club manager Chris McMillan's primary concern is figuring out crowd control - calling on extra volunteers to make sure things don't get out of hand.

"Just a bit of man-power - you know what the girls are like when he's around."

Back in Omihi the training was underway and coaches Jody Horrell and Mike Loughnan were playing down any grand plan to counter Carter's attack. Their club has some former All Blacks who may have provided some insight.

"As yet we haven't come up with a plan but we should have given Robbie Deans a call - he has been trying to figure him out for years," Loughnan said.

More significantly, they said the game would bring a bit of attention to rural Canterbury rugby and give the players a bit of excitement.

"These guys don't get a chance to play against someone like that . . . well, ever."

Jack Earl suggested Carter should be wary of his "show and go" and their backline's "one two" combination.

"But it's just me, the ball and the posts is what it comes down to."

Then Earl peeled off into the night air and into some touch rugby for the team's warmup. Two minutes in he showed the ball and stepped off his right foot - straight through the opposing defence and straight to the try line.

"Nice one Jacko," a team-mate called. As Jack came back to the halfway line, any fear seemed to have left him. He was grinning.

The Press