In March 1990, in the back garden of his bungalow in Southbridge, a small town on the Canterbury Plains on New Zealand's South Island, Neville Carter erected a set of rugby posts. They were an eighth birthday present for his son Daniel, who soon popped his first ball up and over the H. By the time the young man left home he was dissecting them from the other side of the road and has been clearing posts from all angles and all distances all round the world almost ever since.
On Saturday afternoon the rugby road that began in Southbridge takes him to Twickenham, where he will become the fifth All Black to collect 100 caps. As Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, puts it, it confirms him as one of the "special, special ones". A few miles away from the All Blacks' west London hotel, Jose Mourinho's ears might have been burning.
At the hotel a dozen camera crews jostled for position, sent to get Carter, but Carter was nowhere to be seen. Instead Hansen and scrum-half Aaron Smith, the man who will serve Carter, came to talk about their latest centurion – there will be four on the field on Saturday, a stark reminder of the challenge England face – and it is in many ways more instructive to hear what others have to say of the just-about perfect 10 than hear from the man himself.
Carter did talk to a small group of New Zealand journalists but largely stuck to a predictable script of not getting caught up in the occasion, concentrating on jobs in hand and the like. Predictable off the pitch, anything but on it; apart from when he positions the ball on the tee – those childhood sessions in the garden under Neville's watchful gaze have helped make sure of that.
"He always says, 'play what you see, let your game come out'," reveals Smith of lining up with Carter. "He says, 'don't make it a burden'. He is the epitome of the All Blacks. He is the role model, the way he carries himself is awesome and to be inside him this week is awesome."
Over the course of his decade as an international, Carter has also compiled an awesome record and as with Saturday's landmark, it can be played out as a numbers game. Of his 99 matches he has been on the losing side 11 times, the last at Twickenham a year ago, which also happened to be the heaviest defeat he had suffered in a black shirt and one of only three in which the margin of defeat has been greater than one score. He has scored 1,435 points, a world record, 255 conversions, a world record, 254 penalties, and crossed the try line 29 times.
Yet of course there is plenty more to Carter than the black and white of stats. "He is his own man, which is what you want in your leaders," says Hansen. "He is a good athlete for a start. He is very quick, got great hand-eye co-ordination, a great kicker of the ball, good vision. All the things you want in a No 10."
Hansen was on the receiving end of Carter's dramatic arrival at this level. It came in 2003 a week after an England side stomping towards a World Cup triumph later that year won in New Zealand despite playing with 13 men. Wales were next up and a callow Carter, aged 21, was called up.
"The very first one he played was pretty sharp – I happened to be coaching the opposition," recalls Hansen. "New Zealand had been beaten by England the week before and that had gone down like a cup of cold sick. He had his first Test and played very, very well, played 12 and scored 20 points."
It took him another year to make the No 10 shirt his, ousting Carlos Spencer, and a year after that came what many, including Hansen, hold as his best performance, scoring 33 points in the second Test against the Lions. Hansen also picks out his game in the pool stages against France at the 2011 World Cup, but then interrupts his prompted wander down memory lane.
"When you get a great player, when you start talking about their great performances, then they are something right out of the box because normally they are of a huge quality anyway so it's really hard to pinpoint one or two," he says.
In other words Carter has been consistently great over a decade at the top of the game. But for how much longer will he be with us? Injuries have limited him to five of the dozen All Black games this year. He played for around 50 minutes against France last Saturday before being replaced by Aaron Cruden in a pre-planned switch – he is expected to go the full 80 if necessary.
Back home there have been mutterings about his future; Cruden has played well in his absence. Once this tour is completed in Ireland next weekend, Carter will follow Richie McCaw in having a six-month sabbatical with the blessing of the New Zealand RFU.
He is contracted to the All Blacks until the 2015 World Cup. It would be his fourth and it remains the gap on his CV. That swaggering performance against France was his last of the 2011 tournament, a training injury meaning he watched the World Cup win from the stands. Will he be back in England in two years' time?
"That's the $64m question," says Hansen. "We have one or two players over 30 and each of these guys is in the same boat. With those older guys it's just about year by year, campaign by campaign. If they want to try and get there because they have got that desire then it's about performing. Age is irrelevant."
Filling in that World Cup blank is not, Hansen believes, the reason Carter still wants to be part of this "brotherhood". Rather it is that same desire which took him out into his back garden and in front of those posts day after day.
"His motivation is just to be a really, really good rugby player and that is a day-by-day, year-by-year thing as long as he possibly can," says Hansen. "He's a guy who just wants to play, he loves playing and he loves playing really well."
The greatest No 10s: Fly-half heroes
1. Michael Lynagh (Australia)
The man to win the match on which your life depended. Tactically astute and technically supreme, his talent for game management knew no bounds.
2. Barry John (Wales)
Only the ghostly genius from Cefneithin was known as "The King". A wonderful goal- kicker, he touched even greater heights as a running No 10.
3. Mark Ella (Australia)
Precious few outside-halves invent new ways of playing. Ella was Lynagh's teacher – the man at the heart of the seminal 1984 Wallabies.
4. Phil Bennett (Wales)
Whenever rugby union is in danger of losing its spirit of adventure, the memory of Bennett's show-stopping sidestep routine comes flooding back. A true romantic.
5. Daniel Carter (New Zealand)
The best All Black 10 of the post-war era, the South Islander could do it all – and still can. A role model for the professional age.
Chris HewettReuse content