Carter the hero embodies heart and soul of an obsessed nation

Sublime talent of the All Blacks' No 10 gives his country a new sense of self-belief.
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In the land of the long white cloud it is not so hard to find the little town which this morning sits so expectantly at the end of a rainbow. You drive south from here through the farm country and half a dozen almost identical settlements - they all have a bowling green, a whitewashed church, a war memorial and, of course, a spread of rugby fields stretching into the wheat and the clover.

But it is in Southbridge where you find the rainbow because it is the home of Daniel Carter, who some say might just prove the greatest All Black of them all.

This morning he will receive the ultimate tribute in his short but breathtaking career. The British and Irish Lions' game plan for the first Test revolves around one central imperative. It is entitled : "Stop Carter".

Stop the oldest tradition in All Black rugby. Stop the kid from the country, one for whom the ultimate golden harvest is the winning kick or try. Stop the century-hardened belief that this nation of four million have one abiding genius ... to play rugby beyond the imaginings of the rest of humanity.

Carter quite simply is the old, all-New Zealand dream reborn in the 21st century. He has played 18 times for his country and lost once ... in Australia. It is an awesome statistic in a career growth that is being described as unprecedented.

Handsome, 23 years old, easy-going, Carter is a marketing gift in this land obsessed by the oval ball and already he has starred in an underpants advert that his nation's womenfolk have apparently found as compelling as any movie performance by his compatriot Russell Crowe.

However, it is around the town of the pub which occasionally lets out rooms to travelling seed salesmen and a petrol station, and not on the TV screen or the hoardings, that you find the core of Carter's appeal.

It is as old as his first rugby club, established in 1876 - and it wells up from the soul and the soil. Until his arrival there was a disturbing sense that the iron chain linking his country with a unique flair - and hardness - for rugby had been broken. Four World Cups, two of them claimed by Australia and one each by South Africa and England, underlined the question: where had the All Black great ones gone? At least one of them, it seems, was preparing to strike back. Chris McKinnan, the president, opens up the clubhouse and the trophy room - from where you can see six- and seven-year-olds scampering on a field bordered by russet trees - to show you the great prize, a framed All Black jersey donated by Carter after his debut against Wales two years ago, when he scored 20 points.

"Go into any little town in this country," said McKinnan, "and they will tell you that what Danny Carter has given to us is the most precious thing - apart from identity, pride and belief in our past, which we know in rugby terms has been great - but also the future." The future - that is the key to Carter's meaning and the explanation why he has been so warmly embraced by the nation.

He has taken New Zealand back to his roots. He is the small-town boy from the farmlands who has announced that if the world is changing, some fundamentals are still in place.

"You know," says McKinnan, "the worry has been that with the farms going so mechanised and the young lads having to leave for the big cities to find work, the old rugby culture might be in trouble. But then you see what Danny has done, and you say, 'well, here is an example for everybody' - look at those little kids out there, who do you think they want to be? Ask any one of them and they'll say 'Danny Carter'.

"New Zealand kids have more belief in themselves when they see Danny's progress. There was a terrible drop-off point when boys reached the age of 17 or 18. They were running into more physically mature Polynesian players. They were being knocked about and discouraged, but there is optimism now that one of the old supply lines has been opened up again."

Southbridge has a population of 721 and runs nine rugby teams, from the seven-year-olds to the Golden Oldies. Player membership of the club is 220, augmented by out-of-towners who have some connection with the community; they may have moved up to Christchurch, 30 miles away, or they may be courting local girls, but on the field the blood link is forged for life. Carter says: "I guess a little bit of my heart will always be on that field in Southbridge."

His friend, Shane Taylor, who played with him for the club and the local school, Ellsmere College, speaks from a memory he knows will last forever. "There are two Danny Carters, one is the ordinary guy you know so well - and then there is the one who steps on the rugby field and can do anything he wants. Then he becomes separate. Whenever we were in trouble, whenever the pressure seemed to be a bit too much, all us of would say - give it to Danny, he'll find a way."

For the townsfolk, Carter's meteoric rise - he has amassed 241 points in those 18 Tests and his 80 per cent kicking record is at Jonny Wilkinson's level - was some years ago written across those big white clouds that drift down from the Southern Alps.

"A broadcaster came down from Christchurch to give us a talk, and someone asked him who the great prospects were for the future," McKinnan says.

"He said that he had been told by Steve Hansen [the All Black assistant coach who is credited with doing much to promote the renaissance of Welsh rugby when he succeeded his current boss Graham Henry in Cardiff in 2002] that there was a boy at Christchurch High [alma mater of the prodigious Andrew Mehrtens] who was sure to play for Canterbury and the All Blacks and who had a chance of being the greatest player the world has ever seen. No, he didn't say the world, he said New Zealand but then we like to think that's the same thing. Then he said, 'it's your boy Daniel Carter'."

At the local school, the guidance counsellor and rugby coach, Rod Gardner, remembers the day when the son of a local builder told his teachers and fellow pupils that Christchurch High had finally persuaded him - and his parents - that he should take a scholarship for the last year of his school life.

"It was very sad in one way because the whole school knew that something very special was leaving our midst, but he said he wouldn't forget us and sure enough he came in one day to present us with an All Black shirt. He was staggered to learn that the whole school was packed into the assembly hall to see the ceremony."

Blair Franklin, whose six-year-old son is among the pack of kids galloping into the dusk down the field, will be an outsider perhaps for a time - he arrived in the town a mere seven years ago - but he has connected with the heart of the community.

"I've played cricket with Danny and I'm proud to count him as a friend. If he had played cricket seriously he would be a Test player by now, no doubt: you could see him taking up any sport successfully, but then he was made for rugby. You see him for a few minutes and you know he has everything. And then he comes off the field and he might be the guy delivering the milk."

This morning the Lions have the containing of Carter as an absolute priority at the Jade Stadium. The weather forecast said rain and sleet, maybe even snow, which was a worry in that the local hero profits in an open game where his speed and elusiveness have at times been beyond any restraint. Sir Clive Woodward's decision to stiffen his defensive strength with Jonny Wilkinson - at the expense of Welsh prodigy Gavin Henson's potential to explode - is another testament to Carter's impact.

Southbridge made another All Black 20 years ago - the lock Albert Anderson. He played 25 times for New Zealand, six times in Tests, and captained a midweek team in Australia. That was a glory and Anderson's pictures, and several of his jerseys, are still displayed in the clubhouse.

"Of course we are still honoured when Albert comes along to the club," says the president. "He is a classic example of an All Black forward, tough and single-minded and he has that aura of someone who got to the top. But I'm sure he understands and excuses the attention Danny gets.

"All over New Zealand in clubs like this there is one great dream ... that one day you produce a great player, someone the whole country looks up to. If it happens it makes everything worthwhile. People talk about rugby being a religion here. Well, that's no doubt true to a certain extent. But it's something else, too. It's something we can do and set our standards of achievement by. When a Danny Carter arrives he makes the working day shorter ... he makes everyone believe that anything is possible."

On the night drive back to Christchurch you pass again the war memorials and the bowling greens and the rugby fields and the lights of the wide-flung farmhouses. You see how there might be a need to be part of a wider world, to be able to say one day that you could do more than harvest the wheat and cut the clover.

You could sell a snazzy line of underwear - and you could beat the world.