12 Aug 2017

Stephen Donald: 'I’ve had a charmed career'

From Saturday Morning, 10:04 am on 12 August 2017
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Stephen Donald became a rugby legend when he kicked the All Blacks to victory at the 2011 Rugby World Cup at Eden Park.

But it was to be Donald’s first and last World Cup match.

He reflects on the ups and downs of his rugby career in the biography Beaver.

A year before his historic World Cup kick, Donald experienced the full wrath of All Blacks fans after getting blamed for the loss to the Wallabies at the Bledisloe Cup in Hong Kong.

In that game, Donald first missed a crucial penalty, then failed to find touch with a clearing kick – the All Blacks lost 26-24.

"I made two fairly big errors and they were costly ones."

The reaction from All Blacks fans included public abuse and hate mail.

"I was the target. I was disappointed with myself…The next year of public and media reaction was tough at times.”

Donald says he didn’t cope well when he got back to his home town of Waiuku, south of Auckland.

"Once I got back from the tour and realised what was going on around me I just hid away in my own part of the world and I guess tried to drink that month away before I had to be back with the Chiefs.

"I know it was a poor strategy and immature but it was just where I was at that stage of my life."

When Graham Henry rang Donald and told him he wouldn't be included in the 2011 World Cup team he had to accept the idea that the Hong Kong game would be his last as an All Black.

"I was in a bad space."

Donald's managers urged him to take up an international contract while he was still seen as a current All Black so he signed a contract to play Premiership rugby with Bath.

Money wasn't a draw for him, he says.

"If an [All Black] wants to go overseas there's always offers."

Yet after a series of injuries in the All Blacks World Cup team, Donald found himself again on the bench at Mt Eden for the World Cup semifinal.

Later that year he went to Bath.

"I never dreamt of being rich, I just dreamt of being an All Black. I never wanted to leave and I sort of had to in the end, the way it panned out."

Bath itself didn't really float his boat – "it's cold, it's wet, it's slow rugby" – but Donald says he had some fun on the side.

"When I went to Bath I had the greatest OE anyone could ever dream of and in the middle of the weeks I played rugby."

After 18 months there, he moved to Japan which was a fascinating cultural experience, he says.

"From someone from my tiny town upbringing it was an amazing place to go and see how many people coexist."

The Japanese play rugby the way Donald did at high school, he says.

"They biffed it around, there wasn't much structure, it was a lot of fun."

In  2016, he moved back to New Zealand to play with the Chiefs, returning to New Zealand style rugby with a crash..

"The first week back in training I thought 'What the hell have I given up in Japan?' he jokes.

Now 33, Donald is “ancient” for high-level rugby player in New Zealand.

"You probably peak in New Zealand around 26, 27 and then younger guys will come through and the older guys look for big paydays overseas."

At his own peak, as an All Black, he was no stranger to the bench – the most nerve-wracking place for a player to be 'cause you can be called on at any second, he says.

"You can easily get lost looking around the crowd and having a laugh with your mates sitting next to you and all of a sudden, bang you're out there. it's quite an art to be able to mentally do that."

He’s philosophical about the reasons he spent so much time there.

"There's no hiding from the fact that when I was in there the world's greatest of all time, probably, are there in front of me… With the world’s greatest in front of you, it was tough to get a look in."

Donald hopes he’s still got one or two more years of professional rugby in him.

"I'm still loving my footie and I'm still in good condition."

He recently got engaged and graduated with a degree in management studies.

"It's been a big old few months for me."

While sportspeople typically ‘have a go’ at someone in books, Donald says the only person he has a go at in Beaver is himself.

"I’m my own harshest critic. If you can be honest with yourself that's the most important thing.

"After Hong Kong, things went pretty rock bottom for me. I never thought I'd get another opportunity to right the wrongs. That's all I ever wanted and all I ever craved ... the World Cup final gave me that opportunity.

"I’ve had the most charmed career I could dream of."