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'The choker label, it was a tough one to sit with me for 12 months until I guess the World Cup': Stephen Donald opens up on how that one kick changed his life

By Sam Smith
Stephen Donald was one of the heroes of the All Blacks' 2011 World Cup grand final victory over France. (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

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Stephen Donald, otherwise known as “Beaver”, may have had one of the most turbulent careers in the history of All Blacks rugby.

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While the flyhalf will forever go down in history as being the player who helped deliver the World Cup back to New Zealand in 2011 after a 24-year wait, he’d been heavily criticised for a performance in the black jersey a year earlier.

After the All Blacks lost to the Wallabies 26-24 in 2010’s Bledisloe Cup test in Hong Kong, where a young James O’Connor famously converted his own try from the sideline to win the match, Donald was seen as the villain of the piece.

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Most notably, he came under fire for failing to find touch with a clearance kick.

Opening up on his career on Sky Sport NZ’s show, ‘Playmakers: Rugby Stories’, Donald sat down with former All Black Jeff Wilson and discussed one of the most eventual years in the history of anyone’s playing career.

“I know I’d had criticism my whole career but the criticism after Hong Kong was firstly, ‘he doesn’t deserve to be an All Black’, secondly, ‘he’s a choker.’ I’m not the most talented, never been the most talented person, But I worked hard to get where I got to be an All Black,” Donald said.

“When people start saying, ‘he never deserves to be an All Black’, it sort of cuts you. And then the choker thing, that really hurt me because I’d pride myself on plenty of times when kicks needed to go over, kicks it over.

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“The thing about the Hong Kong thing that irks me is from a personal point of view is that I missed the goal kick sort of 15 in from touch, 20-odd out, that would’ve buried the game anyway. So I know everyone harps on about the missed touch and all the rest of it but it’s that goal kick that gutted me the most.

“The choker label, it was a tough one to sit with me for 12 months until I guess the World Cup.”

Following his performance in Hong Kong, both his playing career and everyday life had changed forever.

According to Donald, it’d gotten to the stage where the veteran of Waikato rugby had considered moving away from the country that he loves.

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“It was getting to a point where I felt, and I love New Zealand – anyone who knows me knows I would not want to live anywhere else in the world.

“But it was getting to the point where, did I actually want to have to wear a hoodie and a hat every time I went to the supermarket or if I went for a beer somewhere, did I want to be tucked away further in the corner and try and avoid anyone. And it was getting to that point.”

But following the 8-7 win over France, fans were calling for hid candidacy as Prime Minister at the victory parade in Auckland. He’s since had a movie called ‘The Kick’ made about him. While the criticism could never be taken back, Donald had made amends in the eyes of New Zealand rugby fans.

“It just opened up my life again and allowed me to not have to have a hoodie on in summer, and go to the supermarket, go to the pub in piece. That was the big thing for me…The most important thing is it got me a way of life back again and allowed me to have a bit of freedom in New Zealand again really.”

After firstly confirming that his playing days were “99 per cent, absolutely done”, Donald was asked by Jeff Wilson to reflect on what being an All Black means to him.

As he responded, “it means a hell of a lot more now than ever.”

“Without a doubt there’s things that I wish I’d done differently when I was in there, and experienced that on a older head I would’ve done things differently,” Donald told Wilson on Sky Sport NZ’s Playmakers: Rugby Stories. “It means a whole lot more to me now.”

“The intensity of it all, sometimes, especially back then, I think the boys probably have a better balance now but back then I don’t think certainly myself, didn’t actually stop and smell the roses a little bit and realise how good this is. And now you look back on [and] reflect, ‘yeah, very proud.’”

And when looking back on the “brutal, brutal environment” that he suggested the All Blacks could be for players, it didn’t seem to change his love and passion for the black jersey.

“I’d never moan about it because I would never for one moment not want to be an All Black. So if this is what I’ve got to pay the price for, then this is what I pay the price for.

“It’s not something I ever moaned about because I just thought that this is part of it and if I’m not living up to it, I’m not living up to it.”

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'The choker label, it was a tough one to sit with me for 12 months until I guess the World Cup': Stephen Donald opens up on how that one kick changed his life

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