Can star of New Zealand save Bath?
Stephen Donald was a late addition to the All Black World Cup squad – and ended up kicking the winning points in the final. His next task is to help west country club rescue their sinking season, he tells Chris Hewett
Stephen Donald is not the first World Cup-winning outside-half to find his way to Bath – the rib-rearranging Springbok hatchet man Butch James surfaced at the Recreation Ground immediately after laying hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy in France a little over fours ago.
Neither can he claim to be breaking new ground in discovering that, for all the architectural attractions and lifestyle entrancements of the Georgian city, earning a rugby crust there is a good deal more complicated than he imagined. Jon Preston, David Bory, Robbie Fleck, Luke Watson... when it comes to Test-class imports struggling to make sense of the place, the trail was blazed long before the man from Waiuku came to town.
Donald has been taken aback by the West Country team's run of results since his arrival. Since beating the French Top 14 runners-up Montpellier in a tight Heineken Cup fixture in mid-November, a victory orchestrated by the man himself on his first start, they have not won a game, either in Europe or in the Aviva Premiership. While the New Zealander dismisses any notion of a collective slump in spirits – "We're not going around slitting our wrists," he says – things are undeniably a little uncomfortable right now.
"You don't have to be a historian of the game to know how successful this club was during the amateur era and you don't have to be particularly bright to realise that as a player living and working in a rugby community like this, there will be constant reminders of that success," he continues. "Coming from the All Blacks environment, there are no big dramas for me in coping with the unusually high levels of expectation that always go hand-in-hand with great traditions. That was a big part of life back home. But it's important to point out that present-day players can't control the past. What we can control, or at least influence strongly if we do things right, is the future. That's what I'm here to do to the best of my ability, I guess."
Along with the rest of his new clubmates, Donald assumed he would be doing his preparatory work on the training pitch situated directly in front of the large, Gothic-revivalist country house in the village of Farleigh Hungerford that has served as Bath's day-to-day base since Bruce Craig, the owner of the club, finished sprucing up the place earlier this year. Unfortunately, the drainage is not quite up to scratch, so Donald and company have had to beat it back to the notoriously frugal surroundings of Lambridge, where the great Bath sides of the 1980s and 1990s plotted their triumphs. This is an irony in itself, for generations of players believed Lambridge to be the wettest rugby ground on earth – not so much situated beside the River Avon as in it. Indeed, the celebrated prop Gareth Chilcott once swore he tripped over a U-boat at the bottom of a ruck. "We're training at Lambridge because the other place is too damp" is not a sentence anyone thought would be spoken this side of doomsday.
Happily, Donald rather enjoys sloshing around in river water. One of the best stories of the recent World Cup – far more of a feel-good tale than the stuff about dwarfs, ball-switching and ferry-diving – concerned his late call to All Blacks duty following injuries to Daniel Carter, the best outside-half in the game by a country mile, and Colin Slade. New Zealand were in the semi-finals by that point and Graham Henry, the head coach, was desperately seeking cover for Aaron Cruden, his third-string No 10. Henry made phone call after phone call to Donald, who had taken his fishing kit and a few cans of beer and disappeared into the middle of nowhere in search of peace, quiet and all the whitebait he could eat. The calls went unanswered until one of his great friends, the 100-cap back Mils Muliaina, managed to get through. "Start answering your phone, you idiot," Muliaina told him, politely. "You're going to be in Auckland for a few days."
The rest is legend. During the final against France, the unfortunate Cruden departed with a knee injury and Donald, half-fit at best, found himself running the All Black show on the biggest occasion in the sport. Early in the second half, he was faced with a penalty shot – reassuringly central, but long and hugely pressurised – that would put New Zealand two scores in front. Utterly nerveless as far as anyone present at Eden Park could tell, he nailed it with a minimum of fuss and bother. France would claw back to within a point, but no closer.
"It's slowly starting to dawn on me that the World Cup final wasn't some crazy, crazy dream," he says, two and a half months on. "The penalty? Aw, that's the kind of thing you expect to take in your stride if you're a kicker. There's never any place to hide for people who do my job, is there? But the occasion and everything around it, the fact that I was actually a part of it ... that's what I've struggled to get my head around. They're still writing about it back in New Zealand and I still receive messages from all over the country. I suppose it's changed my life."
Was there no sense of panic among the All Blacks when it dawned on them that instead of winning the trophy at a canter, as the whole of New Zealand had predicted in the days leading into the final, there would not be enough space between the two sides for an ironed-out fag paper?
"We were only 5-0 up at half-time, but it was pretty calm in the changing shed," he replies. "Even at 8-7, when my lack of training was really catching up with me and I was battling for oxygen, we felt as safe as houses. Yes, the French were running us off our feet, but we weren't leaking anything down the inside channels and we didn't think for a second they'd tear us up out wide. We were a little worried about the possibility of a drop goal and if we'd given away a late penalty we'd have been sunk. But was Craig Joubert [the South African referee] going to take his life in his hands by giving one against us? He'd have had fun getting out of the country if he had."
Before the final, Donald had endured his lean spells, his downturns, his bitter disappointments. Much of the criticism thrown at him by the silver-ferned rugby chatterati was cruel, a good deal of it spectacularly wrong-headed, and if he kept his feelings to himself for the most part, there were times when he responded publicly to those on his case. His parents, Brett and Sheryll, were also unable to resist making the occasional remark: Mr Donald said bluntly that his son's only crime was "not being Dan Carter", while Mrs Donald was quoted after the World Cup as saying she was glad he was heading for England, out of the line of New Zealand fire.
But having been recruited, at significant cost, as the centrepiece of a new Bath side constructed with Craig's money and Sir Ian McGeechan's team-building know-how, he stands every chance of finding himself on the wrong end of some flak of the English variety.
"Everyone has a view on rugby in Bath – it's like New Zealand in that way," he acknowledges. "In a way, it's even more intense. If there'd been a run of results like this when I was playing provincial rugby for Waikato or Super 15 rugby for the Chiefs, we'd be lucky to have a thousand people watching us. There's no way 11,000 people would have turned up every week, as they do here. But that's the excitement of it, playing big games every week in front of full houses.
"My job now is to get up to speed with how rugby is played here. I wasn't as fit as I'd normally have been when I arrived and I've picked up some bumps and bruises over the last few weeks, but I'm feeling a little better now and I don't see it as a problem. The challenge is to get to grips with the rugby philosophy: it's more of a set-piece game here and I can see me doing a lot more kicking. There's less of the high-tempo stuff I was used to in New Zealand, where the South Sea Islanders have had such an impact."
Is it a more difficult game for an outside-half when he doesn't have a player as sensational as the Fijian-born All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu running off his shoulder? "You could say," he agrees. "I've spent a lot of time with Sivi: we were at school together, we lived together, we played a lot of rugby together. He's a freak. The best attacker in the world, no doubt about it."
There are no Sivivatu clones at Bath, but Donald believes fortunes will improve quickly enough. "Look, I felt as bad as anyone about conceding 50 points to Leinster in the Heineken Cup a couple of weeks ago," he says. "You don't want to be involved in a game of that magnitude, in front of a crowd as big as the one in Dublin, and fail to show up. That's the worst. It's embarrassing. I had my share of defeats back home in Waikato but I was never belted like that – not even in the toughest times. And knowing that the Bath public share our ambition and motivation and have the same hunger for success ... that makes it even more painful.
"The fact is, we're not mentally tough enough: we're not strong enough to put in a performance one week and do it again the next week. But while I'm not one for excuses, we have a lot of good rugby players not playing rugby because they're injured and sitting in the stand. It happens. When the squad is back to full strength and we pull everything together, we'll climb the table. And when you climb the table, trophies suddenly become a viable option."
Stephen Donald was speaking on behalf of Aviva – proud title sponsors of Premiership Rugby www.avivapremiershiprugby.com
Donald In Digits
3: Outside-halves ranked above Donald by Graham Henry and his All Blacks coaching team before the start of the World Cup.
1,075: New Zealand internationals in chronological order. James Allen, who toured Australia in 1884, is No 1. Donald is between lock Anthony Boric (1,074) and Richard Kahui (1,076), who was the first-choice left wing during the World Cup.
796: Points scored in Super Rugby career with the Waikato-based Chiefs. Only three New Zealanders – Daniel Carter, Andrew Mehrtens and Tony Brown – have scored more.
98: Donald finished his All Black career two points short of three figures. The last three he scored, in the World Cup final against France, were by some distance the most important.
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