Donald's lessons in a rugby life

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Lynn McConnell     02 Nov 2017     Getty Images

Given the nature of All Blacks' success there are any number of examples over the past 50 years.

Stephen Donald's story 'Beaver' is a little different and while it has as its obvious high point the penalty goal that proved to be the match-winner in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, a story subsequently retold in a television docu-drama, there is plenty on the down moments in top sport.

Probably no New Zealand sportsman since Mark Richardson's tell-all 'Thinking Negatively' about the psychological demands of top cricket has talked so frankly about the less attractive side of sport.

In Donald's case it was the loss to Australia in Hong Kong in 2010.

The story is well-known. Donald missed a 76th minute shot at goal that would have put the lead out to eight points. Then a turnover ball needed to be kicked to touch to save the game. Donald kicked, the ball didn't go out, Australia ran it back and James O'Connor scored.

Donald took the loss hard, and he became a target for the all-knowing talkback radio brigade who enjoyed the luxury of anonymity in making him their scapegoat.

The rest of the tour became arduous for Donald, and it got worse when returning to New Zealand and into the start of the next Super Rugby season, which happened to be the prelude to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The public slanging was everywhere.

With Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade emerging as first five-eighths of ability, the result was that Donald slipped to fourth on the list with Dan Carter sitting on top.

It is easy to think in these days of triumph for the All Blacks on the international scene that all is rosy and life is continually good for the participants. But these are humans who are involved and not everyone reacts to pressure of performance in the same way.

Donald describes how tough it was and it is clear that he didn't help himself in some regards on the social side and it was hardly surprising that when the World Cup started without his involvement that he wanted nothing to do with it.

What happened then as Carter, Slade and Cruden all succumbed to injuries, Cruden going off before half-time in the final, and Donald came from his whitebait stand onto the centrestage at Eden Park is part of folklore.

That was a triumph of the will after all the frustrations, but there was more to come. Again, there are lessons to be had for young players heading off overseas to pursue their rugby careers. Donald clearly had second thoughts about travelling to British club Bath and that carried through to his involvement.

His words are salutary: "I struggled with almost every aspect of Premiership life. I struggled with the mentality that playing rugby was a job, not a pleasure. I struggled with coaches who wanted me to kick every time we found ourselves in our own half. I struggled with the ruthlessness of club administrators, and the revolving door for coaches and for players.

"I struggled with newspaper headlines that claimed I had been told by the CEO to lift my game, when no such conversation had taken place. Yeah, I most assuredly struggled with that. I struggled with games on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, and with kicking coaches who tried to change my technique…Most of all thought I struggled with my own discipline. Bath had its own way of doing things and, having accepted their offer to play their, I should have been more professional in how I approached that time. I tried to buy into it all, I really did, but to play well for a team, you have to believe in that team. There was no culture for me to invest in. Rightly or wrongly, that's how I felt almost the entire time I was there."

Food for thought if ever there was.

Rehabilitation has been achieved. Who will forget his contribution to the Chiefs' win over woeful Wales in 2016? But he has continued with the franchise and with Counties Manukau.

For all that may yet happen in his career, telling his story may be one of the most useful aspects of it, and certainly making clear some of the pitfalls that can befall players.

'Beaver' by Stephen Donald with Scotty Stevenson. Published by Upstart Press