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How ‘mentor’ Stephen Donald helped Shaun Stevenson find career-best form

By Finn Morton
Shaun Stevenson of the Chiefs celebrates his try during the round three Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Highlanders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on March 10, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

After taking his game to an all-new level in Super Rugby Pacific this season, Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson has revealed one of the secrets behind his new-found success.

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Led by the likes of Stevenson and playmaker Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs started the season with 10 straight wins – although the Super Rugby beast was slain by the Reds in New Plymouth last Friday.

But that one defeat is a minor blip on an otherwise idyllic campaign, which has included two tough wins over the champion Crusaders.

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The Chiefs looked unbeatable for a majority of this season, and are still widely considered the favourites to dethrone the Crusaders as Super Rugby Pacific champions.

Throughout their impressive winning streak over three months, which saw the Chiefs play some highly entertaining rugby, Stevenson was arguably their best player.

Stevenson is equal-first with Crusaders winger Leicester Fainga’anuku for tries scored this season with 10, and is also in the top 10 for carries, running metres and offloads.

After starting the season in career-best form, the 26-year-old has emerged as a genuine All Blacks bolter ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup – and the Chiefs fullback has revealed his secret.

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Before training with the Chiefs, Stevenson visited All Blacks Rugby World Cup hero Stephen Donald for “a couple of pre-preseasons.”

“I guess I probably needed to fill out a little bit,” Stevenson told RugbyPass.

“I’m quite a tall person for my position so I’ve just filled out a bit and got to an age where I’m pretty lucky to have… been able to keep my speed.

“I guess it’s just one of those things that training, eating, just being a professional and nailing what I need to be able to fuel my body and to be at the best.

“There has been a couple of gruelling preseasons.

“I’ve been working alongside Stephen Donald before I come into Chiefs preseason, so doing two or three day camps out there for about three or four weeks before Christmas before I come back into preseason.

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“Those have gone a long way to helping me be fit… with Stephen Donald, doing a couple of pre-preseasons, it’s been a huge help.

“(Donald) He’s been really influential in my career so far… he’s been a mentor for myself.”

According to the Chiefs website, Stevenson stands at 190 centimetres tall and weighs 90 kilograms. But, even though he’s managed to put on some muscle, the fullback hasn’t lost any pace.

In fact, Stevenson’s ability to wreak havoc with the ball-in-hand is reminiscent of legendary All Black Christian Cullen – blink, and you’ll miss him.

Stevenson is just that quick.

While training with Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald, Stevenson has been focusing on “the fitness side of things” as well as some gym sessions.

“I knew that I needed to take my game to the next level and he’s the one that reached out about coming out there, he doesn’t do it for anyone else,” he added.

“Obviously I played a bit of footy with Beaver but it’s a bit of a running joke that he is my second dad.

“We’ve become quite close in terms of he wants the best for me. It was sort of three years ago where we came up with a plan and what it’s gonna take to get there.

“It was a couple of years in the making and I’m still not there yet because the main goal is to make the All Blacks.

“Hopefully, the last couple of years where I’ve been putting that hard work in goes a long way and I guess we’ll find out if we get there or not.

“That’s a couple of things that got me to where I am in terms of my game.”

As part of this training, Stevenson has been going on 10 kilometres run on the beach – but doing it without any headphones for a very clear reason.

Without music, it’d be pretty hard for anyone to escape the thoughts of doubt and failure while running up and down the “black sand.”

Stevenson has embraced the challenge.

“I try to maximise as much as I can in those couple of days, and for my position, getting that long distance in.

“Mixing that with the short, repetitive stuff but also the next day going out and doing a 10 kilometre run on the beach, no music so just your own thoughts and battling away.

“It’s obviously when you’re gonna find it the hardest is when you’re just battling your own thoughts on the beach as well with black sand.”

Following their surprising loss to the Queensland Reds in New Plymouth, the ladder-leading Chiefs will look to bounce back when they take on the high-flying Hurricanes in Hamilton on Saturday.

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