Stephen Donald delighted to answer the call
The 'Leave It To Beaver' T-shirts can't be far off. New Zealand loves its unlikely heroes, and they don't come any more unlikely than Stephen Donald.
The 27-year-old pride of Waiuku became the All Blacks' latest man for a crisis as he came off the bench to play a pivotal role in Sunday night's epic 8-7 victory over France in the final of the Rugby World Cup.
Donald entered the fray in the 34th minute to replace youngster Aaron Cruden who went down in agony with a hyper-extended knee.
This was a fellow who just two weeks prior had been whitebaiting on the banks of the Waikato River, chugging beers and pondering nothing more than how he might prepare the little blighters for consumption later that evening.
When told he was fourth on the pecking order of New Zealand five-eighths, he'd all but given up on the World Cup dream, even going as far as to delete Graham Henry's number from his phone.
But then the dominos started falling. First Dan Carter went down, and then Colin Slade. When his phone first rang that day while he and a mate were busy hauling in 11kg of whitebait, he ignored it.
Henry was on the other end. Soon after, Mils Muliaina called to say "you'd better start answering your phone, fool, cause you're going to be in Auckland in a couple of days".
Then came the moment on Sunday night. Cruden's knee twisted horribly in a tackle and Donald was catapulted on to centre stage.
He knew something surreal was in the air when the capacity crowd of 61,079 gave him a rapturous welcome. Maybe they sensed he needed a lift. This is a bloke who's copped more flak than anybody in New Zealand rugby for the odd hiccup in the black jersey.
"Its not every day you get that sort of reception, I was pretty proud," said Donald.
The rest, as they say, is glorious history. Donald kept his cool to slot what turned out to be the match-winning penalty early in the second spell and grew nicely into his general role, too, putting in some raking kicks, and making his fair share of tackles.
"There was nowhere to hide," he shrugged afterwards. "It was the World Cup final - time to front.
"My preparation probably hasn't been ideal. When you go whitebaiting you take a few beers with you, so the fitness probably wasn't what it could be. Luckily I only had to survive 50 minutes."
To his credit, there was not a hint of bitterness from the Waikato man in his moment of glory.
"At times people have questioned my All Black work... but you pride yourself on fronting up. You don't always agree with what's written or said about you, but I was excited. It was potentially my last game for the All Blacks so I wanted to play well and prove I'm a genuine All Black."
Donald was still coming to terms with his world champion status, but said it was special to share such an amazing moment with so many of his good friends.
And the kick?
"I knew when it came off it was good. It was just a goal to kick. I certainly wasn't lining it up thinking this is to win the World Cup. I was just trying to do my job."
And now the unlikely hero heads to Bath to continue his career. That decision was made on the back of his slide down the pecking order, but he's committed to it, even if a return to New Zealand rugby has now entered his mindset.
An English journalist pondered when Bath boss Ian McGeechan might expect his Kiwi signing. "I haven't checked the phone, but I'm sure there's a text there from the great man. I might have to give him a call in a couple of days and tell him my plane got delayed."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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