He comes across as affable, eloquent and magnanimous but no All Black has perhaps ever divided New Zealand fans as much as Stephen Donald leading into a Rugby World Cup.

Oh, okay, arguably veteran midfielder Sonny Bill Williams is flirting with that designation on account of his fit-again-unfit-again status but, for now, that domain still belongs to Donald.

The former Chiefs player fell out of favour with the public and national selectors for the initial 2011 RWC squad but came in as the fourth cab off the rank — with first-choice Daniel Carter, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade all out with injuries — to infamously kick a penalty kick as a substitute for the emphatic 8-7 victory in the final over France at Eden Park, Auckland.

"Stephen Donald an All Black Legend??? Yeah right!!!" someone had anonymously contributed to the Texts 2 Ed section of the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper as late as last month on finding out the bloke with 24 internationals under his belt was visiting Hastings.

Advertisement

The 35-year-old was in Hastings last Saturday as guest speaker with TV commentators Ian Smith and Grant Nisbett to help Tarzino Trophy TAB Daffodil Raceday into a record-breaking fundraising campaign for Hawke's Bay cancer patients and their families.

It is unfair to bring up the past of Donald, especially after his noble gesture in helping drive such a worthy cause around the country, but he also is proof of anything can happen for the talent-rich All Blacks who missed out on the trip to Japan.

When TAB corporate communications manager Kate Gourdie introduced me to the man they call Beaver at the Birdcage on Saturday, I jumped to the opportunity of picking his brains on the impending RWC.

First five-eighth or fullback, it hardly matters because as far as Donald is concerned Beauden Barret needs to be somewhere on the field for the All Blacks at the business end of the Rugby World Cup, when it kicks off in Japan in a few weeks.

"He's just got to work out where the coach needs him to be at the moment with the No 9 or 10 so, I guess, they still have the option of putting Beaudy there as well," says former All Blacks first five-eighth Donald, who became a household name for his RWC antics after he was called in while white-bait fishing.

In his capacity as TAB ambassador, he says the All Blacks chance are as good as that of anyone else.

"We're still the favourites because we're down there as defending champions with a strong and a great squad," he says.

He believes the All Blacks are beginning to find "great form", in keeping with tradition over the past three to four years.

Advertisement

"You know, I see the All Blacks going there as the hot favourites."

Donald says coach Steve Hansen's mix is lethal but, no doubt, some fine players had missed the cull of 31.

"That's because we have some great depth and young players just keep coming through but, I think, we have a great team," he says. "You know, we could have probably picked another team of 15 guys who would not have looked out of place."

Donald says it'll be nice to push for an expansion of world cup squads from 31 to, for argument's sake, 36, but feels it's all academic once teams whittle them down to 23 players.

Ex-All Black Stephen Donald tells sports editor Anendra Singh as long as Beauden Barrett's on the park the Kiwis will be humming at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photo/Paul Taylor
Ex-All Black Stephen Donald tells sports editor Anendra Singh as long as Beauden Barrett's on the park the Kiwis will be humming at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photo/Paul Taylor

He believes Cantabrian Richie Mo'unga, under an injury cloud (shoulder or concussion?), is "a great goalkicker" if his performance this year is anything to go by so line him up with Beauden Barrett and younger brother Jordie, it's fair to say the All Blacks are blessed.

Otago Highlander Josh Ioane is in as Mo'unga's cover while Jack Goodhue's also favouring a hamstring.

A grinning Donald had no hesitation in picking South Africa as the most likely foe for the New Zealanders who play them first up in the pool B opener at the International Stadium Yokohama on Saturday, September 21.

"I think South Africa are building nicely but you have to watch England, too, you know, because they are going to be a danger," he says before adding, "I honestly believe it's going to be one of these two games that'll probably give us the biggest scare."

Donald says the games will test the depth in the All Backs' squad and be an early indicator of where they will be.

"South Africa will be our opening game in our campaign and I have a funny feeling it could be the last one for us, too, in the final."

The All Blacks v Tonga test match this Saturday in Hamilton will become a hardening-up ritual for the former in anticipation of what the Springboks will bring.

A sedate Fiji, despite lacking possession and territory for the best part of last Saturday's test in Auckland, had Tonga's measure but the latter did impress with their forwards.

Tonga coach and former Wallaby Toutai Kefu has done a respectable job but, despite Hansen's diplomatic reflection the kingdom was capable of beating Fiji, the "Friendly Islanders" will run out of steam for what was always going to be a blowout.

New Zealand referee Ben O'Keefe (right) keeps an eye on the proceedings as Fiji forward Semi Kunatani takes ownership with ball in hand against Tonga in Auckland on Saturday. Photo/Photosport
New Zealand referee Ben O'Keefe (right) keeps an eye on the proceedings as Fiji forward Semi Kunatani takes ownership with ball in hand against Tonga in Auckland on Saturday. Photo/Photosport

Nevertheless, what impressed me most about last Saturday's Pacific Island clash was referee Ben O'Keeffe's control.

O'Keeffe, of Blenheim, who will make his RWC debut as a referee, demonstrated his class as he not only kept two physical sides in check for the best part but also mentored them with crisp instructions on why he was penalising them in areas such as lineouts and breakdowns.

Commendably the captains of both sides weren't confrontational when confused and will be better for it at the RWC.

Maybe it's an area Glen Jackson may wish to explore while pondering on why he missed out on the 23-member cull of RWC match officials.