ABs' Stephen Donald opens up on public abuse

NEIL REID
Last updated 13:11 03/08/2014
Stephen Donald
JOHN SELKIRK/ Fairfax NZ

WORLD CUP HERO: Stephen Donald might not have been the best fit for the uniform, but he was a match winning All Black when it counted in the Cup final against France at Eden Park in 2011.

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Rugby World Cup champion Stephen "Beaver" Donald has opened up about being the target of vile hate mail and the anguish his family endured when he was subjected to a torrent of public abuse.

The All Blacks cult first-five became a hero around New Zealand when he booted the team to victory in their nail-biting 2011 Rugby World Cup 8-7 final victory over France.

But in the lead-up to the screening of telemovie The Kick, which relives his magic moment, Donald has told how he was treated after being blamed for costing the All Blacks victory against the Wallabies in Hong Kong a year before the tournament.

First missing a crucial penalty, Donald then failed to find touch with a clearing kick.

The Wallabies pounced on the mistake, scoring a match-levelling try and then converting to win the test.

The aftermath was a stream of abuse directed towards Donald; at functions, in the grandstands of rugby grounds in New Zealand during the 2011 Super Rugby competition and on talkback radio.

"There were times when it wasn't hell of enjoyable to be living in the country... after Hong Kong," Donald said.

"When things are starting to happen like hate mail starting to show up, it was getting a little bit out of control."

The contents of one of those letters was the subject of a scene in The Kick, which would screen on TV One next Sunday.

The actor who plays Donald, David de Lautour, was shown reading the letter which described the future World Cup winner as one of the worst-ever All Blacks and a "worthless sack of s...".

The movie also highlighted the impact the abuse directed towards Donald had on his loved ones.

"Obviously after Hong Kong things got pretty intensive for the family," Donald said.

"I can take most of it. But for your family... to have to put up with it, it was getting a bit tough."

Donald wasn't chosen for the 30-strong squad for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. And after the end of his Waikato team's NPC campaign, he was having some down time before flying to the UK to play with English club Bath.

But a series of injuries had him thrust back on the world stage.

All Blacks first-fives Colin Slade and Daniel Carter were forced out of the tournament with groin injuries, and Donald found himself on the bench for the World Cup semifinal and final backing up a recalled Aaron Cruden.

Just 33 minutes into the final, Cruden injured his knee and "Beaver" stepped up.

The moment that changed his life, and ended the All Blacks' 24 years of World Cup drought, came just four minutes into the second half.

"I certainly didn't think that at the time, that it was [going to decide the tournament]," Donald said of his penalty kick.

"I knew that it was important, but not that important."

The ball drifted agonisingly before sailing through the goal posts.

"I never saw it go through... I had already turned. But apparently it got quite close," Donald said with a laugh.

The kick put the All Blacks up 8-0, enough for them to ultimately hold out the resurgent French, who dominated both possession and territory for the rest of the match.

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When the final whistle blew, jubilation broke out around the country.

"I remember struggling being able to talk," Donald said.

"But we were running around like madmen, yahooing... that five minutes after the whistle will never happen again in my life. It was the most bizarre, amazing five minutes."

Donald's match-winning kick was not the only thing for which his World Cup showing was fondly remembered.

His tight-fitting All Blacks jersey was struggling to contain an expanded girth.

Never expecting his Cup call-up, Donald had instead been socialising with mates before taking up his Bath contract.

Footage of the final showed Donald repeatedly pulling the jersey down over his stomach and back.

"I remember Piri [halfback Piri Weepu] had a crack at me about pulling my jersey down at one stage," Donald recalled.

"But it wasn't until we came off the field and we were doing the lap after the ceremony that people were having a crack at me. It was like: 'What the hell is everyone on about?'."

And then it started to dawn on me that the jersey wasn't too well fitted."

But Donald said it was the most special of the 23 jerseys he wore in tests for the ABs.

Donald's efforts on that October night at Auckland's Eden Park in 2011 saw him go from zero to hero in the eyes of many rugby fans.

The adoration was hard to take, as had been the spite directed at him following his showing in Hong Kong a year earlier.

"I don't see myself as being anything special," Donald said.

"I certainly didn't think that [kicking the All Blacks to World Cup victory] was going to happen."

The adoration included his hometown of Waiuku, south of Auckland, being temporarily renamed "Beaverville", its local rugby ground being dubbed "Beaver Park", and local newspaper The Post printing special editions with The Beaverville and Districts Post masthead.

"Well, in Waiuku I can understand it," Donald laughed. "But maybe not in the rest of the country."

The 30-year-old is now playing professionally in Japan.

He will be at next year's Rugby World Cup as a tour ambassador for All Blacks Tours.

Asked how he would like sports fans to remember him, he said: "Just as an incredibly lucky guy who had a crack."

Having been subjected to the public backlash after the 2010 test in Hong Kong, Donald said leaving All Blacks rugby as a world champion had been a blessing "for ease of life".

"That probably has been the best thing to gain out of the whole final... to be able to go down the street and not have some wise joker from across the street heckle you was a nice feeling."

- Sunday News

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