Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Sporting Achievement of the Year 2011 Finalists: Stephen Donald

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Stephen Donald. Photo / Getty Images
Stephen Donald. Photo / Getty Images

All the wonder, all the debate and questions about the All Blacks went up a notch in July.

Rugby followers gathered around their televisions, radios and computers to hear the quasi World Cup squad while the official announcement was made at the North Shore rugby club.

Barring an isolated selection rethink or an injury, this was the group who would be asked to deliver a trophy the All Blacks had relinquished in Dublin in 1991.

In five tournaments since the initial World Cup triumph in 1987, the All Blacks had lost in an extra-time final, three semifinals and then left Cardiff in 2007 in despair and shock after their quarter-final exit.

Four years later, Graham Henry, his lieutenants and players were under more heat.

They had sauntered past Fiji, the Springboks and Wallabies on home soil but then, to remind them about the hurdles ahead, they were bounced 18-5 by the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, although they were without Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Mils Muliaina, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Owen Franks.

After that stumble the tournament squad was picked. Hosea Gear, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Liam Messam, Jarrad Hoeata and Wyatt Crockett were not required. Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Zac Guildford, Anthony Boric and Victor Vito were squeezed into the permissible group of 30 players.

Then the All Blacks lost once more. Reinforcements flown across the Tasman could not staunch the bleeding in the 25-20 loss in Brisbane. Successive defeats; the woe-is-us brigade turned up the volume.

Uncertainty hovered until the All Blacks opened the seventh World Cup with victory against Tonga, nothing flash, but a win.

The show was off and running. Japan were slaughtered but the captain was wounded. A hamstring strain delayed McCaw's 100th test appearance and while that eventuated in the pool win against France, McCaw's foot problem had the medics twitchy.

Not as concerned, however, as the day before the final pool game with Canada when Daniel Carter tore his groin muscle and was ruled out of the tournament. That fate befell his successor Colin Slade in the very next game with Argentina, then Aaron Cruden halfway through the gripping final.

The All Blacks had played extraordinarily well to beat the Wallabies in the semifinal and claimed almost unbackable odds to take out the French, who had lurched through internal crises and fluctuating form to reach the tournament decider.

There were further twists as the All Blacks struggled to combat France's best form and then needed a tightly dressed, unfavoured five-eighths Stephen Donald to rescue them with his only penalty kick of the final.

It was a triumph for his career, his colleagues, the coaching staff and an expectant rugby nation.

Sportsperson of the Year Finalist: Andrea Hewitt
Sportsperson of the Year Finalist: Mark Todd
Sporting Achievement of the Year Finalist: The Crusaders
Sporting Achievement of the Year Finalist: The Breakers

- NZ Herald

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