Southbridge welcomes home Dan Carter
The cars were backed up on the way to Southbridge Rugby Club. Reuben Mitchell and his six-year-old son Kai made their way down the road with a Crusaders flag in hand. Kai had two signatures on the flag. He hoped the day would yield one more.
At the club the barbecues were out, along with roped-off areas where television news crews perched. Kai leaned over the rope to try to catch a glimpse of the player he had come to see. Then the cheers began. Southbridge, the small south Canterbury rugby club, was welcoming home its favourite son.
‘‘Dan Carter Country,’’ read the banner hung out over the bannister leading up to the clubhouse. It would be here, in a club rugby playoff, where Carter would make his return to the game. It would be his first appearance since a sabbatical that began when he limped off Twickenham in his 100th test during the All Blacks’ 2013 end-of-year tour.
Since his departure the All Blacks have been doing some limping of their own as they again struggled to subdue England in Dunedin last night.
Yesterday, though, Carter ran out with his other team – the No 10 on his back forcing the team’s captain Shannon Donald one position out. ‘‘The things you’ve got to do, I suppose.’’
As Carter ran out dressed in blue and white stripes he might have been another part-time player ... had it not been for the suntan, smooth legs, distinctive swagger and slightly more defined jowl.
But then the magic began.
‘‘I like him because he runs fast,’’ six-year-old Kai said soon after the kickoff. And he did. The cold foggy air of inevitability came over the ground as Carter began to show his class. Firstly slotting an early penalty and then chipping a sideline kick to winger Pate Natoba for a try. It all looked so easy.
Fellow Southbridge All Black Albert Anderson stood at the corner of the pitch and remembered Carter as a young kid running around the same field and kicking goals from the sideline.
‘‘He was just like every other kid running around,’’ he said.
It was the biggest turnout Anderson had seen for a Southbridge match. He estimated the crowd at about 2000. ‘‘A lot more than back in my day,’’ he said.
Back then All Blacks regularly played for their home clubs. Now, he said, it was a rarity. ‘‘Makes it more special.’’
Carter was kicking goals, throwing passes and making tackles. At one point he ended up at the bottom of a ruck as calls came from the Glenmark sideline: ‘‘Ruck him.’’ Carter managed to avoid that fate but after 40 minutes he put on a coat and strode to the bench.
‘‘It’s a great turnout,’’ he said. The last time he played a home game for Southbridge he was 17-years-old. ‘‘There are a lot of memories out here and it’s great to make some more.’’
He just wanted to ease into playing again but everything felt good, Carter said. He would be back again next week.
After the match, won comfortably by Southbridge, the players retired to the clubhouse and the fog kept on coming in. Carter’s father Neville, dressed in shirt and tie and track pants, was behind the bar. He made his son pay for his drinks.