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Beer, fishing and kicking the winning points - Stephen Donald speaks about the 2011 World Cup

The42 spoke to Donald about going from fourth choice to a World Cup winner.

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup Source: Themba Hadebe

THE LOOK ON his face told you enough.

When you’re right by your line and you’re five points up in a Bledisloe Cup match and there’s just 41 seconds left on the clock, the touchline can seem like a narrow enough target.

It was October 30 2010, exactly 51 weeks short of the moment that would define Stephen Donald’s career.

He kicked deep and failed to find touch, and after phase upon phase of relentless Australian pressure James O’Connor sidled inside the All Black defence to level it up. His conversion won it, a first win against their Bledisloe rivals in 11 attempts.

The backlash was brutal, and Donald was hit with the brunt of it. At first, it just seemed like normal criticism, the price you pay for being an All Black. Eventually, it became too much.

“Look it was a tough time. Obviously when you’re in the All Blacks you’re in a bit of a bubble so you don’t really know how bad it is until you get home and then it became pretty tough,” he tells The42.

“The public weren’t too impressed with me after Hong Kong and there weren’t too many times I ventured out that I didn’t get reminded of it.”

Source: ruggerdump/YouTube

The following June it was announced he was leaving the country for the Aviva Premiership and Bath after the World Cup’s conclusion, and when he was left out of the 30-man squad by Graham Henry soon after, he decided to enjoy what time he had left in New Zealand.

He took in some of the World Cup as a fan. He caught up with his old friend Isaac Boss in Taupo and took in some games in Hamilton with Liam Messam, another player outside the All Blacks’ tent, looking in.

He pointed the car for the wilderness, he packed up the fishing rods and nets, and he set off for the Waikato River.

“I knew I was going to Bath, so I decided I was going to leave for a bit of a break, so I just went out hanging with family and friends.

“I was imagining that I was going away from New Zealand for such a long time, so I said I wanted to live everything I love about New Zealand.”

“I went and fished and socialised and in the end had a few barbecues and a fair few fishing trips before I planned to go to Bath.”

By now, the World Cup was the last thing on his mind. He cracked open a few beers and enjoyed himself, one final holiday at home before his career would ultimately take him away for the next four years.

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup Source: Ross Land

All the while, his All Black teammates, and in particular the out-halves, were dropping like flies. Dan Carter’s groin injury bumped Colin Slade into the firing line, and Aaron Cruden got the coveted late call-up. Donald didn’t even bother checking his phone.

“Realistically it wasn’t going to happen, because I hadn’t been instructed that I was next in line at all so I guess I had no idea where I was sat in the coaches’ thinking. I guess I didn’t have any reason to have too much hope about getting in.”

As if there was something in the New Zealand air, it was another groin injury that put Slade on the sidelines, a week after he’d taken over the 10 jersey from Carter.

Aaron Cruden would start the semi-final against Australia, Donald would be called in. The only problem was that while the exiled out-half was still technically in the country, he may as well have been a million miles away.

“I was down the Waikato river with one of my mates from back home, we were just whitebait fishing. Obviously down there you don’t have too much reception, we were out in the wilderness a bit, and it wasn’t until I came into a bit of reception that my great mate Mils Muliaina finally got a hold of me and said that Ted (Graham Henry) was trying to ring me for the last couple of hours, and that there was a reason I should call him.

“I knew Ted wouldn’t be ringing me for a cup of tea, so I had a fair idea what it was going to be about.”

Wayne Smith, Stephen Donald and Hosea Gear 11/10/2011 Donald sitting between coach Wayne Smith and the also called-up Hosea Gear after arriving in camp Source: Andrew Cornaga

He didn’t have to be asked twice. After celebrating his Grandmother’s birthday that night, he was in a tracksuit in Auckland the following afternoon.

However, he still knew his place. He’d been told he was the reserve, but that didn’t bother him. Considering 24 hours earlier he’d been by a riverside on his holidays, there was nowhere he’d rather be.

“Since I’d been a young boy all you ever want to do is play for the All Blacks and until the day they chuck me in a coffin I’ll still have that dream. There was no way I wouldn’t have accepted it, it’s not who I am.

“They told me on the phone that I’d be on the bench and we can go from there. I knew exactly where I stood.”

After a few weeks of beer and barbecue and chilling out, he wasn’t exactly World Cup conditioned.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2011 - Final - France v New Zealand - Eden Park Donald's jersey didn't quite fit, as he kicks the winning points in the final. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In time it would become a source of amusement, even the jersey he wore against France in the final kept sliding up his back. It wasn’t the best fit, but he didn’t really care.

“I was in the worst shape of my life to be fair. I’d started to probably have a few runs because I knew I was going to Bath soon so I was just keeping it going a little bit but certainly nowhere what you’d call pre-season condition.”

He didn’t leave the bench in the semi-final win against Australia, but he wasn’t expecting to either. Aaron Cruden was holding down the fort at 10 and scrum-half Piri Weepu was on the tee, but he wasn’t looking comfortable.

30 minutes into the final against France a week later Donald found himself taking off the tracksuit. The out-half curse had struck again.

Cruden had twisted a knee, and Donald got the nod. It was a week short of one year since he’d been vilified by the public; no better time to answer the critics.

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup France

 

The memories of the previous 12 months were making him more and more determined to right the wrongs, like kindling on a bonfire.

“I probably should have panicked, to be fair. It was a moment in life I’d craved more than anything, I’d craved it my whole life. I never – realistically – thought I was going to get another opportunity. When you get that opportunity, and it’s something you’ve always wanted – and I guess the 12 months I’d been through previously – I just wanted to get out and nail.”

Piri Weepu had been on kicking duties since the semi, but by half-time in the final he’d scored just four of his last 10 attempts on goal, and was 0 from 3 in the final.

When the first chance to kick for goal came at the start of the second half, Donald grabbed the tee. It may have felt like just another kick, but it was much more than that. It crept inside the post. The lead was eight.

donald

“I’ve said it before and as the time’s passed since the game, if I’d thought about it and realised the significance of it I’d probably have been under a bit more pressure than I felt at the time.”

When the final whistle went in Eden Park and the scoreline read 8-7 in New Zealand’s favour, Donald had completed his transformation.

Two weeks beforehand he’s been sipping beer and catching whitebait by the pound. Now, he’d just kicked the winning points in the World Cup final.

“It was the most bizarre feeling imaginable. I guess the thing that I remember more than anything is that feeling after the final and spending time with the team and the reaction of all New Zealand. Just the joy that it brought to the country.”

“Beaver’s” status in the country went from rags to riches in the blink of an eye. Instead of being the guy that lost a Bledisloe Cup, he’s the guy that won the World Cup.

New Zealand WCUP Rugby World Cup Parade Source: Natacha Pisarenko

In sport, your reputation can change with the tides, but Donald’s happy he went through the rough, if it means he came out smooth at the end.

“It is what it is, and yes it is fickle and all the rest, but I appreciate the significance that rugby has in New Zealand, and when you sign up for it you know what you get and you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“People often talk to me about that but I’m happy I went through it. I’m proud I went through it. It just shows more than anything about how New Zealand cares about the All Blacks.”

After finishing with Bath in 2013 he spent time playing in Japan, four years away from the country in total. He’s now back where it all began, wearing the red, yellow and black of his home province.

You’ve just spoken to him the morning after his Waikato homecoming, a 30-25 win against Southland in the ITM Cup.

The New Zealand Herald’s report the the following morning described him as an “All Blacks folk hero”.

They weren’t wrong there.

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Neil Treacy

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