'Fisherman' Stephen Donald lands the biggest catch of his life
Fourth-choice fly-half cannot match Carter's skills but he kept his cool when it mattered
Monday 24 October 2011
So, that's how it's done. The choke-based taunts that have amused the rugby world since 1991 are at an end. As sporting-trivia sadists the globe over will cheerily tell you, it's been 24 years since the All Blacks managed to win a World Cup final. We had to come back to the same ground and the same opponents to end the miserable run. And the secret to winning? Decrease the talent.
Over the years, the All Blacks have developed a habit of turning up to World Cups with the most talent of any squad, and departing sans silverware. Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson – all left the biggest stage without the trophy. So there's no small irony in the decisive kick of a painfully tense World Cup final being landed by Stephen Donald, the fourth-choice fly-half of the nation that gave the world Daniel Carter.
For Carter, rugby is an artform as natural as breathing. For Donald, it is a rote-learnt trade.
Donald's All Black career was in tatters after he flopped against the Wallabies in Hong Kong. That day, he came on for Carter while the All Blacks were ahead and was at the helm when the final whistle signalled defeat. The New Zealand rugby public is swift to condemn and slow to forgive.
Donald is from my hometown, Waiuku (pop: bugger all). His dad, Brett, coached my first XV and would bring his two young sons to training. Stephen was seven and would scamper off to get the ball whenever it got kicked away. He was – and remains – a good kid.
The World Cup hero du jour (soon to grace the No 10 jersey at Bath) learnt the game – and learnt to love the game – at his father's knee. He recieved tips on what a fly-half should do in different situations: his goalkicking stance, tackling technique, tactical vision.
And in the end that's what was needed. When all around was crumbling, Donald was good enough – not brilliant – and steadfastly coolheaded.
When Colin Slade was invalided out of the squad after the quarter-final, Donald was fishing on the Waikato River. He took the field yesterday after another man preferred ahead of him, Aaron Cruden, suffered a knee injury.
"I didn't kick a ball for about six weeks. I was pretty proud to get that one over," Donald said of his match-winning penalty.
His captain, Richie McCaw saw it coming. "I had a thought during the week when he came in that he could easily end up kicking the goal that made the difference," McCaw said. "He's a hell of a good man and I am so pleased for him that he got an opportunity.
"A couple of weeks ago he wouldn't have dreamed of being in a World Cup final and he got to play 50 minutes of it and he said he probably wouldn't have had 51 – 50 was about his limit. Everyone around him made it easy for him but he did the job and that's great."
So, all things considered, we were better off without Carter, eh? Not quite. After two decades of gut-wrenching misery, please excuse us a spell of triumphalism.
Only the French would be daft enough – and brilliant enough – to lose to Tonga and go on to beat the All Blacks in a World Cup final at Eden Park. Had Francois Trinh-Duc's late penalty attempt gone over, even the most gutted Kiwi fan would have acknowledged the Gauls as justified victors.
Rugby tends to come easily for the All Blacks. So, breaking the 20-year drought in such a gut-churning fashion will make New Zealanders better appreciate just how hard it is to win this damn thing.
And it might just make us recognise the virtue of graft over outrageous talent.
Trouble at no 10: Kiwis' quartet
Handed an unlikely call-up on 10 October following Slade's groin injury as he fished on the Waikato River. Played most of last night's game, scoring second-half penalty to help secure Cup.
Called up as cover following Carter's withdrawal, the 22-year-old replaced Slade in the quarter-final and began semi-final and final before leaving the field in agony yesterday with a knee injury.
After three pool appear-ances, the Canterbury fly-half replaced Carter ahead of the final group game but also picked up a groin injury in the quarter-final over Argentina.
Twenty-nine-year-old began the World Cup as New Zealand's golden boy and main hope but lasted just two pool games, 153 minutes and 21 points before succumbing to a groin injury on 1 October.
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