The first time that Dan Carter got the chance to put points on the board for the All Blacks, he lapsed into a trance. It was at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on the evening of 21 June 2003, and Doug Howlett had scored a try close to the touchline, leaving the debutant inside-centre with a tricky conversion attempt.
It seemed that the 21-year-old rookie was frozen in time. Perhaps he was picturing the mini set of goalposts his father, Neville, had rigged up in the back garden of the Carter family home in Southbridge, 30 miles from Christchurch in the farmlands of New Zealand's South Island. The young Daniel – or Danny, as he is still known in Southbridge – became so proficient with his pots at goal he had to line up his kicks further and further back until he ended up taking aim from across the road.
Danny Boy had to be given a "hurry up" warning from referee Alan Lewis before he snapped out of his reverie and swung his left boot to land his first points in the international arena. That night there were 20 in all – which included six conversions and a penalty – in a 55-3 victory over Wales. The rest is history – well, almost.
Seven years and five months after being given the hurry-up in Hamilton, Carter is only three points short of becoming part of history as Test rugby's ultimate scoreboard-ticking phenomenon. He lines up for an All Black side seeking to complete a Grand Slam of the British Isles at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff tomorrow with 1,176 points to his name, just two shy of Jonny Wilkinson's international record haul. Perhaps Mr Lewis could urge him to finish the job of getting into the record books. It just so happens that the Irish official will be the man in charge – and, of course, that Wales will provide the opposition.
"It would be a great achievement to surpass Jonny and it would be pretty cool to achieve it against the side against which it all started," Carter reflected yesterday. "The record will weigh on my mind but the team comes first. The Grand Slam is far more important than any record I could get. To be able to finish a very successful season by winning this weekend would mean a lot. Personal milestones are nice and it's good to be proud of them, but that's not what drives me."
What drives Daniel William Carter is what has driven the All Blacks to an all-consuming state of distraction at times in the 23 years since David Kirk became the first man to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy. Ten months out from another World Cup – like the inaugural tournament, in 1987, to be played on home soil – New Zealand are in their customary role of favourites. Just a glance at the surroundings tomorrow will offer a reminder of how they fell short last time. It was at the Millennium Stadium that they suffered their 2007 quarter-final defeat against France, a 20-18 turn-up for the form book.
Carter was below par that day, contributing just eight points; his average return from a Test match is 15 points. He was suffering from injury and lasted only 56 minutes.
Over the course of 78 internationals and seven-plus years, the builder's son has become indispensably pivotal to the All Black cause. It is not just the place-kicking precision and the 15 points. It is the lynch-pin orchestrating Carter has provided since swiftly graduating from his formative days as a second five-eighth, to use the Kiwi vernacular for the inside-centre, into the universally acknowledged perfect 10.
It is five years now since Carter gave his command performance against the British and Irish Lions in Wellington, plundering 33 points – including two tries – in as masterful an exhibition of the outside-half's art as surely can ever have been beheld. That was the year he won the International Rugby Board's player of the year award. His name was absent from the list of 2010 nominees announced yesterday but if there is one man the All Blacks need at the beating heart of their team if they are to end what by next autumn will be 24 years of World Cup hurt, it is Carter – the 5ft 10in, 14st 11lb silken Crusader who appears to glide in slow motion as he slices through the opposition defence.
New Zealand have won 69 of the 78 Tests in which Carter has appeared. Their one defeat in 2010 was suffered against the Wallabies, 26-24, in Hong Kong four weeks ago. They were 24-12 up when Carter, playing his first game after ankle surgery, was replaced by Stephen Donald.
Despite sitting out training in Bath on Tuesday, to rest his right ankle, Carter has been picked in the pivotal position for the match that would give the All Blacks their third Grand Slam in five years under the guidance of the former Wales head coach Graham Henry.
At 28, the New Zealand national treasure stands on the brink of replacing England's points-scoring master in the record books – and as it happened it was Wilkinson he saw at work the first time he was called up for senior national service. The week before John Mitchell chose to blood him against Wales that day in June 2003, the young Carter spent 80 minutes on bench duty when the Woodward-coached, Johnson-captained, Wilkinson-inspired England visited the Westpac Stadium in Wellington. He had a perfect view of Wilkinson giving the All Blacks the boot, the talismanic outside-half landing all of his side's points – four penalties and a drop-goal – in a momentous 15-13 victory. That was England's first success on New Zealand soil for 30 years, a throwing down of the gauntlet by Woodward's team four months out from their triumphant World Cup campaign across the Tasman Sea.
It was typical of Carter that yesterday he seemed keener to talk about the current holder of the points record than about himself. "Jonny has still got a lot of games left in him and plenty more points to score," he said of the currently incapacitated Wilkinson. "He's a quality footballer. Come pressure situations, like in the World Cup, he's really valuable."
Like Wilkinson, whose drop-goal won the 2003 World Cup final, Carter has been conspicuously unaffected by fame. He has modelled underwear but he remains a quietly-spoken, self-effacing soul. Last month he and his long-time girlfriend Honor Dillon announced their engagement. She is a former striker with the New Zealand hockey team, the Black Sticks, but any suggestion that the couple might be described as the Kiwi Posh and Becks meets with a cringe.
"Interview him now and he remains the same calm, pleasant, attentive conversationalist he was when he was first promoted to the All Blacks," Wynne Gray wrote in the New Zealand Herald this week. "Little appears to faze Carter, and you find yourself wondering if he has a pulse. There are many who believe it beats to an ultra-low rate, hence his value as the ice-cold brain in the blast-furnace heat of international rugby."
That icy coolness was evident when Carter snapped out of his trance in Hamilton seven years ago. It should ease him into the record books in Cardiff tomorrow.
Get Carter: Dan's rugby career
Daniel William Carter
Born 5 March, 1982, Canterbury
1999-present Canterbury (State side)
2003-present Crusaders (Super Rugby)
2008 (sabbatical) Perpignan
78 caps for New Zealand, 1,176 points
* The New Zealand fly-half began playing for his state (Canterbury) in 2002 before he was selected to play in the Super 12 (now Super Rugby) franchise for the Crusaders the following year.
* Carter made his All Black debut against Wales in June 2003, where he scored a try and kicked six conversions and a penalty.
* In 2005 he scored 33 points in a single game against the British and Irish Lions, breaking the record for total points scored against the Lions by an All Black.
* 2005 was a successful year for Carter; he averaged 17.4 points in seven internationals, and also claimed a Tri-Nations title and the IRB Player of the Year and led Crusaders to the domestic title.
* In 2006 he scored the most points for a player in one season, registering 221 for Crusaders who won the title again.
* Tri-Nations titles in 2006 and 2008 preceded a Grand Slam tour of Britain. In 2008 he joined French side Perpignan on a sabbatical.
* After re-joining Canterbury and Crusaders last year, he became the leading points scorer in Super League history.
Dan Carter could become international rugby's highest points scorer against Wales tomorrow, overtaking England's Jonny Wilkinson.
Jonny Wilkinson (1998-) England/British & Irish Lions
Matches, Pts 1,178
Dan Carter (2003-) New Zealand
Matches 78/Pts 1,176
Neil Jenkins (1991-2002) Wales/British & Irish Lions
Matches 91, Pts 1,090
Diego Dominguez (1989-2003) Argentina/Italy
Matches 76, Pts 1,010
Ronan O'Gara (2000-) Ireland/British & Irish Lions
Matches 104, Pts 980Reuse content