New Zealand Rugby
Donald soaks up starting role
October 31, 2008
Stephen Donald of the All Blacks relaxes during the New Zealand All Blacks captain's run at Hong Kong Stadium on October 31, 2008 in Hong Kong, China
Donald relaxces ahead of his first Test start © Getty Images

Stephen Donald admits the chest feels a bit tighter walking around Hong Kong -- but he playfully blames the air quality, not nerves, as he prepares for his first start in test rugby.

Donald's fledgling international career reaches a significant juncture at Hong Kong Stadium tomorrow night (9.30pm NZT) when he is tasked with running the All Blacks backline in their Bledisloe Cup road trip with the Wallabies.

The trophy may not be up for grabs but there is plenty riding on this historic experience for a number of new or nearly new players -- not least the Waikato pivot. Donald could reasonably expect minimal game time behind a player the calibre of Daniel Carter so it was a surprise when he was named at first five-eighth for his seventh test -- he didn't even bother to suggest his parents Brett and Sheryl bother with the Hong Kong leg of the tour.

He figured they might see him on Murrayfield next weekend against Scotland. But Graham Henry and Wayne Smith thought otherwise and have given Donald the primary playmaking responsibility -- though Carter will still chip in during phase play.

"There's not much you can say really -- it's the dream come true. Being an All Black .... starting a game against Australia, you can't really ask for much more," Donald said. "I thought at some stage I might get a start, I didn't know when it was going to be. To get this one is pretty special.

"It's the biggest game of my life. I'm surprised I've been sleeping all righ t at the moment though I know the players around me are going to make it a fair bit easier.'

Donald's contribution when he joined the last Bledisloe Cup encounter in Brisbane has influenced the selectors thinking -- and the Tri-Nations' clinching victory will also linger long in his memory. A bundle of nerves when told to replace Ma'a Nonu in the 51st minute, Donald eventually grew into the first five-eighth's role as Carter moved to midfield. The tactical switch worked a treat as the All Blacks erased a 7-17 deficit to eventually win 28-24 and retain the Cup.

"It's given me massive confidence than I can hack it out there," he said. "Now this is another test proving I can start at this level. It's another opportunity to take another step really."

Donald and Carter hit it off as a pairing at Suncorp Stadium -- the first time they had played alongside each other -- with the former feeling the combination was developing again during training.

"We've talked a fair but about what we're going to do in different parts of the field. It's going to be a pretty comfortable sort of fit I think."

Meanwhile, part of the reasoning for employing dual playmakers against the Wallabies was debunked yesterday when coach Robbie Deans named Stirling Mortlock and Ryan Cross in midfield.

The All Blacks had been expecting Berrick Barnes to return from injury and add another kicking dimension. "Once they saw our selection they probably saw that as an opportunity to run a couple of big guys into that area. That's what I would imagine," said All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith. "I think it's to put physical pressure on Daniel and Stephen."

Deans claimed he never planned to tinker with his midfield combination, saying Barnes was always a candidate for the bench as he is nursed back from a bung shoulder.

The Wallabies are probably more interested in Mils Muliaina's no-show due to parental duties and its repercussions on a back three featuring Isaia Toeava and debutant wing Hosea Gear.

Makeshift fullback Toeava's fluctuating test career faces another inquisition with Deans admitting the Wallabies would seek to undermine his confidence early.

"We hope to keep him busy," Deans said. "If we can find an opportunity to isolate him .... great."


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