Thursday 17 January 2019

World Cup winner Donald to fill Ulster's pivotal void

Stephen Donald on the charge for New Zealand during the 2011 World Cup final. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Stephen Donald on the charge for New Zealand during the 2011 World Cup final. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Jonathan Bradley

With Christian Leali'ifano set to depart Ulster at the end of this month, the province will put their faith in former All Black Stephen Donald for the remainder of the season.

Donald is a cult figure in his homeland after kicking the winning penalty in the 2011 World Cup final, only weeks after being recalled into the squad from a fishing holiday.

The 34-year-old will arrive at Kingspan Stadium after he finishes up the Japanese season with his Toshiba Brave Lupus club this weekend. While confirmation is not expected until final details have been ironed out this week, the signing of the man with 23 All Blacks caps to his name will provide Ulster with an experienced out-half to cover Leali'ifano's departure.

The Wallaby has played 15 times for the province this season after arriving on the eve of the opener against the Cheetahs.

With his last home game coming against La Rochelle in Saturday's crunch Champions Cup contest, skipper Rory Best said yesterday that the Brumbies man will leave big boots to fill.

"He's given us some big performances in his time here," he said. "Obviously, for him, it would be nice if finishes his last home game with a victory and a performance."

With Leali'ifano's initial motivation for his Belfast sojourn the search for game-time after a leukaemia battle, Best has been especially impressed with how the 30-year-old bought into life in Ulster.

"He's a quality player, we knew that when we signed him," added the hooker. "But more than his rugby ability, it's how he is as a person. You hope he'd be the kind of person that you thought he'd be with everything he's come through in his personal life. He's been that and then some. That's the sort of people you want.

"You want people who come in and play well, but you want people who are really good in the dressing room and people that you instantly like. He's 100pc been that. From that point of view, as much as anything, he'll be a really hard act to follow."

With Leali'ifano's intention always for a return home in time for 2018's Super Rugby season, the province have now turned to Donald.

The man nicknamed 'Beaver' will be making his second move to the northern hemisphere, after a lucrative, but largely unhappy, spell at Bath.

He pitched up at the Rec after the 2011 World Cup, and the game that will define the legacy of his career.

He had missed out on selection originally, but kicked the crucial winning penalty in the final against France following injury to Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden over the course of the tournament.

Despite the gloom currently engulfing Kingspan Stadium after a wretched interpro series, a win on Saturday would actually see Ulster take over top spot ahead of a concluding trip to Wasps.

A first European knockout tie since 2014 would be a considerable shot in the arm for Les Kiss's beleaguered coaching ticket, with head coach Jono Gibbes saying he expects his side to embrace the pressure.

"Look, we know the size of the occasion and the quality of opposition on Saturday, but that's a good thing," he said. "It's where we want to be.

"It's good to be in round five and not just hanging in, but genuinely alive and with something tangible as a reward if we work extremely hard.

"What's the thing that has to happen for that to come to fruition? That's what we've got to put all our energy into.

"When you see games like Saturday, clearly that's what we should be focused on.

"We've got to focus on what we've got to do to put them under pressure for 80 (minutes), make them uncomfortable here and give the best of ourselves."

With wing Tommy Bowe already ruled out with the shoulder injury he picked up against Leinster, prop Wiehahn Herbst missed training yesterday with the ankle problem he picked up in the RDS.

And while Luke Marshall is still on the sidelines, both Chris Henry and Kieran Treadwell were back on the paddock at Pirrie Park yesterday.

Johnny McPhillips figures to provide fly-half back-up while Jared Payne was de-registered from the Champions Cup squad to make room for the 20-year-old.

The naturalised Kiwi, who will now have no game-time before the Six Nations and seems sure to miss out, has yet to play this season.

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