By PETER CALDER
Carlos Spencer says "to be honest" a lot. It's an unconscious reflex, a sort of verbal tic, and it's superfluous. Shy, soft-spoken and artless, he immediately impresses as a man who would have a lot of difficulty being anything other than honest.
He uses the phrase to fill in silences in a conversation he plainly doesn't want to have. "It'd be good to get this over with," he says as he takes a seat in the old wooden stand overlooking the No 2 ground at Eden Park where the Auckland rugby squad are getting ready for training.
So he probably didn't see the question coming. The beefcake one, the one about how he attracts lingering looks from women old enough to know better and who wouldn't know a lineout from a scrum.
Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt describes mid-life as a time when "your hair goes back and your belly goes forward." It's also a time when you notice if your wife, flicking through a magazine, stops on the page where the naked man advertises instant coffee with only a thin ribbon of towel for covering.
That belly doesn't go forward. There is no belly. Just a six-pack of abdominals and a V of a torso which, if drawn by a cartoonist, would look improbable.
A chocolate biscuit maker bought the idea - and the body - turning Spencer into an object of female fantasy. So how does the boy from Levin feel about being a sex symbol?
Even through the brown skin, the blush is plain to see. "Aw, hell," says his body language, long before he can get the answer out.
"I don't particularly worry about it, mate, to be honest," he says. (A pause. I'm hoping he'll enlarge.) "Nah. Nah. Nah," he adds at last. "That stuff doesn't worry me. To be honest.
"If you make an extra bit of pocket money on the side, that's good, but the other side of it doesn't worry me, to be honest."
Spencer would rather be seen as a rugby player than a sex symbol. Only yesterday came the long-awaited announcement that confirmed the poorly kept secret: Spencer, who had for weeks been courted by English club Leicester, has re-signed for three years with New Zealand Rugby.
Far from being a piece of advertising beefcake, he now has the chance to be the pinup boy of a new All Black era. He was meant to be there when it all turned to custard. Word in the All Black camp during the World Cup campaign last spring was that the mercurial and unpredictable first five-eighths would be coach John Hart's first choice in the starting XV.
But that all changed on the morning of October 5 when the squad took to the practice pitch at the Pennyhill Park Hotel, their plush Surrey digs. As part of what was meant to be a light training session, Spencer was holding a tackle bag which would protect him from his team-mates' murderous charges during tackle practice.
For an instant he looked the wrong way and wasn't braced when his Auckland team-mate Dylan Mika hit. The impact bent Spencer's knee the wrong way, rupturing the medial and anterior cruciate ligaments in the right leg. His World Cup campaign was at an end and his whole career was in question.
The look on his face in our photo taken on the day as he is carried from the field says it all. He's not flinching from pain, but white-faced with rage that it has come to this.
There followed 10 months of surgery and rehab and a few appearances in the Super 12 - "I came back too early," he now thinks. But in training on Thursday, he was moving freely and feeling fine as Auckland prepared for the NPC.
It seems a long time - though it's barely seven years - since a 17-year-old called Carlos Spencer impressed everybody as his third-division Horowhenua side went down 17-80 in a Ranfurly Shield challenge in Levin. The man who said he would have preferred to play at second five-eighths or centre dummied Auckland fullback Shane Howarth and ran in a try, converted it and another, and banged over a 40m penalty to score 12 of his side's tally.
Our rugby writer, Wynne Gray, described his talent as "brash" - in later years, his name and the word "precocious" have become almost inseparable and it was inevitable that he would make his way into big-city rugby. He pulled on the Auckland jersey at the age of 18, and was called to France to replace an injured Andrew Mehrtens the next year. He won the first of his 12 All Black caps three years ago next month, but, by his own assessment, he had barely got started before that sunny day in Surrey.
The lure of Leicester must have been considerable. It was believed to have been an offer of $3.5 million and one is forced to assume that the New Zealand union came close to or matched it, although Spencer declines to discuss "any of that contract stuff."
And while the rugby is the passion, the money does matter.
"That's why I thought about it so hard. I'm only 24 and I've got a few years, hopefully, left. But anything could happen if I get injured again.
"The Leicester offer was looking pretty good but my aim was to stay here and play. At the same time it needed to be a pretty good contract to actually stay."
The desire to play with his mates, to live in a culture that's familiar, to avoid the harsh English winters must all have weighed heavily on the player's mind. But Spencer distills his ambition - and his reason for re-signing with New Zealand - into a single sentence: "I want to be an All Black again."
It's an ambition which would ring a bell with many small-town boys who started, like Spencer, to play competitively at the age of five and were following in the footsteps of a playing father. Rugby now has brought him a measure of fame - and more than a modicum of fortune as well. But he says he's still a country boy.
"I don't think I've become one of those cafeaac freaks," he says, the expression on his face suggesting that "freaks" is standing in for a word much less polite. He always goes home for Christmas or family occasions and if he weren't driving a sponsor's Ford, he reckons he would be behind the wheel of a "Chevy V8 or something - not one of those Jap cars with big exhausts."
It's not surprising this self-effacing, down-to-earth young man finds public attention hard to take. He's not surprised to hear that Tana Umaga endured abuse all evening in Christchurch from revellers celebrating an All Black victory in which he had played no small part.
"You get [abuse] a lot," he says. "Every player gets it. It gets to you. I would love to have a go [at a tormentor]. But I haven't. Not yet. You've just got to walk away, though I give a bit back now and then.
"Things have changed. You've got to be so careful what you do. It's a pain, really. After all, we're human beings and we do stuff up sometimes. But that doesn't give everyone the right to cane us.
"Tana was just having a good time. I feel real sorry for him, to be honest."
If Carlos Spencer is to pull the black jersey back on, he might need to discipline his game. He knows it too. He says that "percentage" is what's missing, "taking the right options and cutting the error rate."
I put to him what other rugby observers have said: that he has almost too much talent, that he gives the impression of a man with so many options swirling through his head that he doesn't know which to choose.
"Yeah," he says at last, looking across the field. His attention is gone. It's time for the practice. "Yeah," he says as he walks to the field. "Some people do say that. Some people do."