Stephen knockers were dead wrong
As the clock ticked toward the Bledisloe Cup opener, All Blacks first-five Stephen Donald thought he'd found a sanctuary in the upstairs section of an Auckland cafe.
He thought wrong. The spotlight has been squarely on the Waikato man since he was named to start in the troublesome No10 spot and it wasn't about to let up in the hours before kickoff.
"I went for a walk this morning and hung out downtown there and just watched the world go by," Donald said after guiding the All Blacks to a 22-16 win over Australia on Saturday night.
"I thought we'd done well hiding upstairs at the Starbucks, but as I was leaving I got the five-minute sort of pep talk from Joe Public, which was nice.
"He was very supportive and just said play my natural game. New Zealand's a great place for that."
Donald had his tongue firmly in cheek, the punter's encouragement probably not mirrored by all of the free advice he's received from passing cars and part-time life coaches.
But the story sums up much of what the 25-year-old must have been through in the past two weeks.
Wing Caleb Ralph was probably the last All Black to feel the glare of such public scrutiny. Ralph never quite shook his knockers, but Donald has left his to ponder their wisdom.
"As an individual you always want to front up and know that you have a bit of character about you," Donald said after fulltime.
He said he watched "trashy hotel TV" to quell the pre-match butterflies. "If you aren't getting nervous before one of these games you are dead. She's big-time footy and there are always nerves. I guess it's how you control them. I've tried to stay as calm as I can and not get caught up in it all. That's what's worked for me at Chiefs level and you can get overawed by all of this, so I found the formula today.
"I'll have a beer tonight and probably just sit down and say, `yeah, you got through a pretty tough couple of weeks of your life and hopefully onwards and upwards now'."
Sometimes it feels good to be proved wrong. What he lacks in the smooth skill of Luke McAlister, Donald makes up for in character, guts and perseverance. At Eden Park he passed the sternest of tests under one of the most unforgiving gazes in sport. In his 12th test he played to his strengths, running at the line, barking orders and kicking six of eight attempts at goal despite tricky winds, to finish with 17 points.
There were signs of his main weakness, getting ball to foot. A muffed first-half chip nearly proved disastrous and two second-half bombs went straight up and down. But he held his nerve.
"I was stoked for him," centre Conrad Smith said. "He's been great all week. You know he's someone who provides confidence. There's nothing better than a first-five who barks orders, and you just have to like him. I knew he would play well."
Such faith has been mirrored by the All Blacks coaches, a huge hug from Graham Henry on fulltime and high praise from Wayne Smith. "We coached him, but he's the player and he's done most of the work himself," Smith said.
"He had no right to be ready for this week with the [hamstring] injury he had, but he showed huge desire to be there under a lot of pressure.
"There's been a lot of public comment about him he showed there's something about him."
The Dominion Post