Auckland first ran into Carlos Spencer in early April 1993.

The teenage five-eighths was a poster boy, with his Horowhenua coach Scott Houston, on the front cover of the souvenir edition of the Levin Chronicle celebrating the union's centenary.

Even then there was no mistaking Spencer, wearing his union's red cap and his ubiquitous cheeky grin.

Auckland had brought the Ranfurly Shield to town for the 57th defence of the famous trophy and knew little about the pair pictured with the Log o' Wood.

A few days later Auckland knew about Spencer as he scored a spectacular try against them, an audacious dummy sending him to the line and into the local headlines again despite the 17-80 defeat.

We tried to pin Spencer down for an interview afterwards in the crowded changing sheds at the Levin Domain. He was in full swing with his team-mates - they'd had a great day. They'd appreciated Auckland's gesture, and this was a rugby day to remember.

But he was as reticent to talk about his own deeds then as he was throughout his stellar career.

Spencer was much happier to shift the attention to fellow schoolboy Nopera Stewart, who had also scored a try during the match.

Nothing much has changed about Spencer since that warm autumn afternoon in Levin.

Perhaps legendary All Black five-eighths Grant Fox, someone who played against Spencer that day and has coached him since, sums it up best.

"Carlos is basically a shy Maori boy from Horowhenua. But when he runs across the touchline onto the field, that is where he feels most comfortable, that is where he expresses himself best, that is where we can all see the joy he gets from his rugby.

"Being in the media, being in the spotlight, that is not him."

Spencer likes a bit of glitz. He is keen on the sharp clothes and he is proud of his tattoos, which have been adjusted to include covering the 'Los' emblem that used to adorn his left arm.

He has been a Toffee Pops ad-man and been through a raft of hairstyles. Most of all, he likes getting away from any unwanted attention on his Harley-Davidson or going fishing and hunting with his mates.

IF YOU believe some of the ranting about Spencer, he is just a lair, a show-off, a flash-harry from Auckland.

Born 29 years ago in Levin, Spencer is simply someone born to play rugby. He is consumed by the game and trains zealously to allow his natural talents to prosper. Spencer is all about having a go and "enjoying the moment, mate". But once the match is over, he wants to move on.

While Jonny Wilkinson admits to being obsessive and letting that consume his day, Spencer loves to play footy and live a little.

Interviewing him now is little different from that day 12 years ago at the Levin Domain. Spencer hates to stay still. He answers questions rapidly as a mechanism for getting through the ordeal. Too many mistake his shyness for an arrogance.

Round the good times - and there have been screeds of those - there have been the difficult moments.

Perhaps the worst was the training ground accident in Surrey, England in the days leading up to the 1999 World Cup. Spencer was distracted momentarily while he held a tackle bag and his knee buckled against a driving hit from Dylan Mika.

Spencer was out of the tournament, into surgery and serious rehabilitation.

Three years later, just down the A316 at Twickenham, Spencer damaged his shoulder badly in the loss to England. Coach John Mitchell had preferred Spencer to his longtime rival Andrew Mehrtens but the experiment only lasted until halftime.

Interviewing Spencer after both major injuries, he was philosophical but as determined as others had been, like the great Michael Jones, to return to the game they loved.

A year after he made Auckland coach Graham Henry stand up and take notice in Levin, Spencer had swapped the red and white colours of Horowhenua for the blue and white hoops of Auckland.

It was to start a player/coach association that would continue with Auckland, the Blues and the All Blacks.

It was an alliance which provoked Henry to say of Spencer that he "has so much ability it's unbelievable".

"He does stuff others only dream about, and he can kill an opponent."

When Henry returned from Wales to be technical analyst for the Blues, he rated Spencer the best first five-eighths in world rugby in 2003. Naturally he endorsed Spencer's selection as the All Black pivot.

"We need players who are going to push out the boundaries, express themselves and create opportunities," Henry told the Listener.

"He's that sort of player. He's not a maverick. I find him an absolute pleasure to coach: he's always looking to extend himself and I don't think the public has any idea how hard he's working.

"He's very influential now; one of the key leaders of the team."

When Fox retired from rugby at the end of 1993, his provincial baton was about to be passed to Carlos James Spencer.

As an 18-year-old, he made his debut for Auckland in a Super 10 match against Waikato in April 1994, then shared the first five-eighths duties that season with Lee Stensness. After that Spencer was on his own.

He created such an impression that he made his All Black debut at Beziers the following year as a replacement on coach Laurie Mains' final tour. Spencer's duels with Mehrtens have been a decade-long debating point in New Zealand rugby.

"Carlos is an X-factor player," Fox told the Herald.

"He is a guy who can change a game with a piece of his magic. He is a huge influence on football games.

"In the years when Auckland and the Blues won titles, when they had special campaigns, Carlos' form was outstanding. He was the sort of guy who would try things others would not dare.

"He was a winning five-eighths for every side he played in.

"It was a joy watching him close-up, coaching him and seeing him do things which just left you going 'Wow'. I think he is ready for a change now, though ... He has been in first-class rugby for 14 years, which is just staggering."

This season has been difficult for Spencer with his dropping then his broken cheekbone, but Auckland wanted to give him a proper farewell, some sort of ceremony to acknowledge his contribution.

Spencer refused point-black - he would be embarrassed by that sort of attention. Each to their own. Sean Fitzpatrick was comfortable with his Eden Park send-off in 1998 but Spencer would rather tiptoe off to his next assignment.

* * *

A bit of magic, a bit of mystery

Conjurer, magician, King Carlos, ringmaster - they are descriptions which have all been used about Carlos Spencer.

The five-eighths would never rate his favourite imagery but you guess the "spontaneous genius" description by former Wallaby great Mark Ella would be right up there.

"He is a genius," Ella said. "He's not stereotyped like so many flyhalves of today who are so stuck on playing to patterns that they've lost the ability to think on their feet."

Or the assessment from old mentor Graham Henry.

"He has got great instincts, a superb feel for the game and a rich regard for New Zealand and Auckland rugby."

Former All Black coach John Hart said Spencer was a special player in the professional era and never lost his flair.

"People also say he could not perform under pressure but his goalkicking and general play against South Africa and Australia in 1997 was right up there for a long while."

Spencer's repertoire has consistently staggered rugby followers. His speed, agility, dexterity, audacity, deception ... his range of skills is so extensive that at times it seemed he suffered through an excess of choice.

Sometimes his brain was three steps ahead of the play, like the time he shelled a pass behind his line in the 2003 Super 12 final and Mark Hammett scored. Spencer overcame that calamity to guide the Blues to victory.

For the All Blacks, his nerve was never better displayed than the 1997 test at Ellis Park when he out-duelled local kicking hero Jannie de Beer to steer New Zealand to a 35-32 victory.

On his regular Eden Park sanctuary, Spencer has dazzled with the no-look pass, the between-the-legs pass and the lob pass to himself.

He has double-pumped his way past opponents, stutter-stepped through defences and thrown in the odd goose-step for Campo's benefit.

The length of his spiral punts or drop-punts has often been accompanied by gasps from the grandstand.

But it has been the attacking knee kicks and banana kicks which have created the greatest chatter. Spencer's days in New Zealand rugby may be numbered but his legacy will last a long time.