Stephen Donald: The 10 who replaced the 10 who replaced the 10 who replaced the 10

Graham Henry (L) and Stephen Donald on stage at Hagley Park during the All Blacks 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup celebration parade in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It was such an uplifting, outlandish tale, one which saw a figure who had once been derided and abused become nothing less than an instant national treasure, that Stephen Donald was told by his one of his teammates after they’d won the World Cup: “Beaver, mate, there’s gotta be a film in your story.”

Richard Kahui, it transpires, wasn’t wrong. In the annals of sport, has any single reputation soared quicker, higher, more spectacularly or more permanently than after Donald slotted over a penalty he would expect to convert nine times out ten?

Only this one won the World Cup for the All Blacks at Eden Park and it transformed his life forever. And, as for that movie? It came out this time last year, with the part of the rugged hero played by some smooth Hollywood-based actor and Donald acting as its consultant. It was called simply ‘The Kick’.

New Zealand loved it. It was, as the publicity blurb had it, a “tale of redemption”, recounting the unashamedly romantic tale of how Donald, a grafting nearly man of All Blacks rugby who’d earned his unflattering nickname “Beaver” from a goofy-toothed character in the kids’ programme, Leave it to Beaver, had been in the shadow of the mighty 10, Dan Carter, for years and finally got his chance to shine in the Bledisloe Cup game against Australia in 2010.

He blew it spectacularly. Brought on for the last 20 minutes to replace Carter with the All Blacks 24-12 ahead, Donald missed a touch kick which led to James O’Connor’s winning try. After a shocking game, he was abused and vilified by the demanding rugby public, receiving hate mail, including a letter from one troll pronouncing that he was “a worthless sack of s***”.

Then overlooked by the selectors for the following year’s World Cup and having resigned himself to thinking his All Blacks career was over, once Carter got injured and Aaron Cruden was called up instead of him as third choice fly-half, he disappeared on holiday for a few beers and a spot of whitebaiting with his mate Dougie, a last holiday blast before embarking on a new overseas career at Bath.

That’s when fate took an extraordinary hand. Colin Slade got injured during the quarter-final against Argentina, leaving Cruden as last 10 standing.

So the SOS went out. Get Beaver. Yet no-one could find him at his Waikato River hideaway. When he and Dougie finally got back to an area with telephone reception, he found there were nine missed calls from the same number.

As he didn’t recognise it - he had deleted it from his contacts list - he didn’t realise coach Graham Henry had been desperately trying to get in touch, until his mate Mils Muliaina rang him with the message: “Answer your phone you fool, you’re going to Auckland!’”.

Still, he didn’t expect to be playing the final against France until Cruden suffered a knee injury. So it was that, in the 34th minute, wearing a comically skintight black jersey that barely covered an expanded tum which had enjoyed a few holiday beers, he became enshrined as the 10 who replaced the 10 who replaced the 10 who replaced the 10.

It’s sometimes overlooked what a good game Donald had in that tightest and most bruising of finals, making some big tackles, enjoying one searing break and combining with his captain Richie McCaw for a key turnover near the All Blacks’ own line in the dying minutes with the French pressing for the winning score.

Yet all everyone remembers is The Kick.

“With us only 5-0 up, I knew it was important but I didn’t know it was going to be that important,” he recalled. Nor that it would one day become so clouded in mythology that there are still those who will swear the footage actually shows the ball drifted fractionally wide of the right hand post.

All Blacks flyhalf Stephen Donald kicks a penalty during the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup final against France at Eden Park

Donald admits he would never know anyway because he was so sure it had bisected the posts that he had already turned and started running back to the half-way line. “Of course, it went through, though,” he told me with a smile during his post-World Cup period at Bath.

If it hadn’t, one of sport’s best modern fairytales may have never materialised. In the weeks after the triumph, a “pretty freakish” insanity took over the life of a bloke who was essentially a small-town New Zealand boy with a great work ethic but no airs, graces nor ego.

His home town of Waiuku went potty about the local lad made good. Donald’s dad Brett told me how, a few days after the victory, he got up one morning at the family home in Meachen Terrace and found the road sign had changed to ‘Beaver Boulevard’. The welcome sign to Waiuku itself had magically changed to “Welcome to Beaverville”.

Donald himself just smiled, felt it was all “just a little bit bizarre” but enjoyed the acclaim. After all, he laughed, it was a bit better having people wanting to come across the road to bow to you rather than call you a worthless sack … He took it well but when we talked in Bath, there was an underlying disappointment about the way he had been treated by some of his compatriots after his Hong Kong failure. “It did hurt,” he conceded, but what upset him most was not that he had to take this bile but that his family had to suffer it too. Brett remembered his lad warming up in games earlier in 2011 when he’d get abuse from the stands even when he was just going through his kicking drills. “Vitriolic, stupid stuff,” he recalls. “We’d bite our lips and try to ignore it.” But he knew it upset Donald. Perhaps that was why New Zealanders wanted to celebrate Donald’s redemption song so heartily. Maybe there was a touch of guilt over the way a good, hard-working Kiwi had previously been treated.

How could Donald top Eden Park? He couldn’t, of course. His 18-month Bath stay proved a disappointment as he struggled for full fitness - and form. Yet, just as at everywhere else he’s played, Donald proved a popular figure at Bath’s Rec.

Since then, he’s been playing second tier Japanese rugby near Tokyo with the magnificently-named Mitsubishi Dynaboars but, strangely, as his rugby profile became more invisible, his reputation soared back home to the point that the New Zealand government pumped NZ$2.8 million (1.65 million Euros) into helping fund the Donald biopic.

It was quite an event. David De Lautour, a rugby-loving Kiwi expat in Los Angeles whose previous claim to fame had been playing an angel in Xena: Warrior Princess, landed the hero’s role and talked almost reverenially of the honour of having to do justice to the Beaver.

Did he pull it off? Well, the reviews were a bit mixed and among the All Blacks squad which went to watch a special screening before last year’s Bedisloe Cup match, Richie McCaw must have been most astonished by the fact that the actor playing him wasn’t so much a lookalike as a couldn’tlooklessalike.

One TV critic couldn’t work out if it fell into the category of films that are so bad, they’re good. “‘The Kick and Stephen Donald’s All Blacks career, both,’” he added but, like its subject, most agreed the movie had its heart in the right place.

Because people like Donald and they love the idea of the everyman who becomes the main man.

At this World Cup, a group of fans from New Zealand who are part of the official All Blacks Tours party will doubtless hang on his every word when he and Sir Graham “Ted” Henry act as their ‘ambassadors’ on the tour in Britain.

Donald will be in London for the business end of the tournament on this special “Ted ‘n Beaver fan tour” and the All Blacks’ travel people couldn’t resist flagging it up. So they produced an advert for the tour in which Henry and Donald are sitting next to each other on a plane, checking their travel group itineraries.

“I see you don’t arrive until the semis,” says coach Henry, before turning towards Donald with a chuckle and adding with a chuckle. “Late call up again then, eh Beaver?” Now that really would be a story….


Lifestyle

Why you should go hug a tree

More From The Irish Examiner