Campbell Burnes hears from the former All Blacks No 10 on his new gigs and some old-school thinking (from the December 21/January 22 issue).
Husband, father, coach, pundit, radio show host, businessman.
These are the many hats of Stephen Donald these days. In fact, the last 4-5 months have been among the busiest of his 38 years.
Just a few months back, he was unemployed before the start-up radio station SENZ signed him on. He took on the counter-attack, turnover attack, exits and kickoff receipts portfolios for the Waikato NPC team. And he joined the business ranks, setting up his Grins brand of RTDs with Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Donald’s NPC experience ended on a high, with the Mooloos capturing their first title since he was running the cutter in 2006. But after getting into his groove early, he was shut out of face-to-face contact with the team, his rural Waiuku property inside the greater Auckland bubble.
“Obviously the final was completely different times from 2006, when there were about 25,000 there. This one could have been lost with a minute to go, but it was quite special in the end. They were a bunch of good buggers. The sad part of it for me was not being able to interact daily with them due to Covid,” says Donald, who did make it down to Hamilton for the final, mixing SKY punditry with his coaching.
“By the end, though, they were just a clinical outfit and they really nailed their moments against two experienced teams in the clutch, Canterbury and Tasman.”
He would love to be back to help the group defend the Premiership title, if they’ll have him. As for the old warhorse and good mate Liam Messam, three months his junior and stranded on 99 games for the province, Donald says he would be “very surprised if he doesn’t raise the bat next year.”
“He will play again, I know he will. He’s saying he doesn’t know, but he hasn’t treated his body as poorly as a few of us. He’ll be fit enough.”
Donald likes the look of the Chiefs’ roster for 2022, despite the departure of McKenzie to Japan.
“Josh Ioane was considered, up until recently, one of the better No 10s going around, so you won’t get a much better replacement for D Mac. To be fair, it’s a wonderful-looking Chiefs team, so if Ioane fires, then it’s a good team on paper,” says Donald.
He knows Ian Foster well, having played under him at the Chiefs for eight seasons, and can feel the bite of the criticism that has been directed at the All Blacks coach since the tired team limped home after a unique season.
“It was inevitable that if things didn’t go well, everyone was going to come for Fozzie. Pre game two versus South Africa, there were no issues with him, but now…
“It was a long tour, but Fozzie will admit they didn’t play anywhere near their best in the last two weeks. He’ll know why. They came up short from a tactical point of view. I don’t think they asked enough questions, considering the quality of players they’ve got. As for that French team, if they were beating any team other than the All Blacks, you’d sit back and say, ‘This is something to watch,’ wouldn’t you? Dupont and Ntamack looked a million dollars and had as much time as they wanted.
“With my job on the radio, you hear it all. But they have to settle and commit to a few positions,” he says, midfield and blindside flanker uppermost.
After a northern tour where he failed to really crack into gear, though that was hardly all his fault behind a beaten pack, Richie Mo’unga has slipped, in Donald’s eyes.
“Right now, you’d have to say Beaudy (Barrett) is No 1. After the second Bledisloe Test, you’d have to say it couldn’t have been anyone but Richie. Realistically though, in 12 months’ time, we could be saying the same thing. Beaudy is the clear No 1 on form,” he says.
Since July, when Mo’unga was still the best No 10 in New Zealand, Donald has been on the airwaves, co-host of the SENZ 4-7pm Drive Show on week-days, along with Kirstie Stanway and, on Thursdays, with Rugby News contributor Rikki Swannell.
“I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself in for when I said ‘yes’. I was unemployed at the time and jumped at the opportunity. It was something different. I’m lucky with Kirstie, who’s obviously a professional and makes life a whole lot easier, and Rikki. They know what they’re doing and they’ll happily tell you that I don’t!
“But talking sport for a few hours a day is not the worst gig,” he quips.
The technology still escapes him: “I get mocked a lot. If I can organise my mic and headphones, then everyone’s happy!”
While he feels he needs to watch more sport on TV, no easy thing with a young family, his weekly golf game is now a monthly golf game, if he’s lucky. A resolution for 2022 is to ensure more balance, maybe some judicious delegating.
I put it to Donald of the irony of him working in the media after the occasional tempestuous media commentary on his rugby during his All Blacks days.
“The irony’s not lost on me,” he laughs. “I would imagine I dominated sports radio for a few hours back in the day. But it gives you perspective. I don’t come off the top rope too often with people because I know exactly what they’re going through. People don’t go out of their way to play poorly. Sometimes at that level your best isn’t good enough because someone’s played poorly.”
Donald, like morning hosts Brendon McCullum and Israel Dagg, isn’t trying to bring hard-hitting journalistic nous to the table. They are just having a conversation about sport and can bring some insight into the top level.
Donald knows his rugby and sport, but he’s feeling his way as a businessman, having introduced a new brand of RTDs onto the shelves, Grins, which does a line in vodka and citrus, and vodka, mango and pineapple.
He explains the Grins name: “If you are having a drink and a good time, you are grinning. Also, one of our group (McKenzie) grins before he goalkicks.
“Instead of buying a race-horse, this idea popped into our heads. After researching and seeing if it was feasible… I’m a normal Kiwi bloke. Who doesn’t dream of having a crack at your own booze line?”
He and his business partners have been putting in some hard yards to ensure they have covered all the bases.
“It’s been a massive eye-opener. We want it to be successful. It’s a very cluttered RTD market out there.”
While one would think women in their 20s would be the target of the RTD market, Donald reckons a growing number of young men and rugby people drink RTDs, moving away from the old-school beer and spirits.
Jerome Kaino has his undies line. Donald, McKenzie and ALB have their booze line.
With that, the man they call ‘Beaver’ is off to prepare for his radio show. The callers might have calmed down about the All Blacks by now. But Beaver knows better.
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