Kick it like Carter

Dan Carter's father Neville in front of the posts he set up for his son to hone his skills.
Dan Carter's father Neville in front of the posts he set up for his son to hone his skills.

Kate Preece spends an afternoon touring Dan Carter's home turf in Southbridge.

In his shoes

The scene is nothing extraordinary. We are sitting at a table, resting our mugs on the sports section of a newspaper, and casually chatting about the new All Blacks jersey. The location, however, is enviable. Some people would do anything to be sitting in this chair, in this humble home; the home of one of New Zealand's hottest rugby heroes, All Black Dan Carter.

The only thing missing is the man himself. Instead, I'm sharing my coffee with Dan's father, Neville, who has had members of New Zealand and international media dropping in for a cuppa ever since his son's Canterbury Crusaders debut in 2003. Neville is as accustomed to interviews as he is to the frequent appearance of rugby fans on his property in Southbridge. They come from near and far, in small groups, teams and in tour buses, to have their photo taken beneath the goalposts Dan Carter used to hone his kicking skills during his youth.

This month, Neville, wife Bev and daughter Sarah will be serving afternoon tea on the sacred lawn as part of a special tour for the Rugby World Cup. Branded the Carter Country Experience 2011, and part of the Real New Zealand Festival, it's a chance to see Dan's hometown and rugby club and even drink some Carter's draught at the local watering hole.

The Carter Country Experience 2011 includes an Opening Ceremony Dinner on September 9 and three tours led by the Carter family or Southbridge Rugby Football Club manager Chris McMillan. I've driven 45 minutes from Christchurch, past farms and tractor shops and through other character-rich rural townships, to sample "A Unique Experience" tour. Before you get too excited, it doesn't include stepping inside Dan Carter's home.

I meet Chris at the rugby clubroom, where clumps of sprig-patterned mud tell tales of the weekend's games and the walls are awash with photos of teams, past and present. There's Dan Carter memorabilia, as well as rugby jerseys collected by Southbridge's other All Black, Albert Anderson, whose final appearance was in the 1987 World Cup win against Fiji. A collection of photos commemorates the club's centennial in 1976 and includes a photo of Neville alongside his five brothers and father, all in their Southbridge rugby gear. It is little surprise Dan possesses the rugby gene.

During the Carter Country Experience, the clubroom will have a secure area displaying more of Dan's many sporting trophies and there's talk of some couches among the classic clubroom bar stools and high tables. Southbridge rugby merchandise will be on sale so fans can even purchase their own Southbridge rugby club badge, made famous by its appearance as Dan's lucky charm in a Rexona television ad. There's no mention of Jockeys though, and Dan's modelling achievements are curiously absent from the clubroom tributes.

From the rugby grounds, it's a short walk to the Carter home, where those with rugby skills can punt a ball over Dan's posts. Neville set up the goalposts for Dan's eighth birthday, turning a potato and gherkin patch into a well-groomed rugby field. It not only helped Dan's goal kicking, but also saved the house's spouting from being battered by rugby balls that didn't quite make it all the way over the house.

The next stop is the Southbridge Hotel, home to Dan Carter's first All Black jersey and cap and that specially named beer. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sip Carter's Draught, in the Carter Country Courtyard, alongside your own Carter tour guide. Neville tells me it's the local drink of choice.

The tour ends where it begins, at the Southbridge Rugby Football Club, one of the eight clubs that founded the Canterbury Rugby Football Union. There, ticketholders finish the evening with a spit-roast dinner. The cuisine on offer differs greatly from what was planned before February 22's tragic earthquake.

Since May last year, Chris and the Carters had been finetuning a different plan, with a distinctly French flavour. World-renowned chefs from Michelin-star restaurants were to be flown from France by French company Popit for a three-day culinary showcase. Southbridge's population would have almost quadrupled with anticipated visitor numbers of 2000 a day. Former All Blacks would have rubbed shoulders with French supporters and French chefs would have divulged their culinary secrets to eager crowds. The event, named the Black Rooster, relied on a quarter-final clash between France and New Zealand, and, most importantly, a Christchurch venue.

"It would have been just like a mini-Kaikoura Seafest," says Neville, who refers to the abandonment of that plan as "gut-wrenching".

Nevertheless, rugby fans and Dan Carter followers will still get their rugby fix from the Carter Country Tours, with a rare glimpse into the childhood of a local sporting legend. It's worth the trip just to have some time out in an idyllic rural town, with a quiet main street dotted with small businesses and greenery, and (sadly) not a Jockey billboard in sight.

A Unique Experience runs on September 8, 26 and 27, from 3pm, and costs $45 for an adult and $25 for a child. The Opening Ceremony Dinner on September 9 starts at 6pm and costs $30.