Stephen Donald and Bath have never been a good fit, and today the Kiwi international announced that he is to leave the West Country side at the end of the season and move to Japan with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars.
Unfortunately, none of the regulars at The Recreation Ground will be saddened by that news, and his departure will instead signify a merciful end to a deteriorating relationship between the player and his own supporters.
As Donald was replaced by Tom Heathcote halfway through the second-half of Saturday’s game with London Welsh, the sleepy home crowd cheered with as much enthusiasm as they’d managed all afternoon. Heathcote is a popular and promising player, but the roar was as much for Donald’s departure as it was for his arrival.
Rugby is not football, and players are not usually subjected to that kind of open animosity from their own supporters, but Donald has been almost universally unpopular throughout his eighteen months in England – more, it must be said, for what he represents rather than what he actually is.
The New Zealand international is a good player, and he possesses one of the sharpest creative minds in the Bath midfield, but he has never blended properly with his surroundings. His mis-passes and his cross-kicks would be an asset in another team, but they’ve always been rather redundant at Bath, and whereas in Southern Hemisphere rugby he would be applauded for his vision, in the blue-collared world of the Aviva Premiership he’s chastised – reasonably – for continuously surrendering possession. He’s a bad fit and, without denigrating the player’s skill-set, he was a poor signing.
…and that’s the second reason why the natives won’t be sorry to see him go.
Donald is symbolic of a financially wasteful era at Bath, and a synonym for the frustrations associated with it. With Bruce Craig’s purchase of the club has came enhanced possibilities and new ambition, but up until the arrival of Gary Gold and his coaching staff at the end of last season, Bath’s new found riches were more of a hindrance than a competitive advantage. Like all very wealthy men who invest in sport, Craig overestimated his knowledge of the game, and his preference for ‘name’ signings rather than team building left his club treading water rather than making exponential progress. Being wealthy and naive will almost always lead to a club being taken advantage of, and that’s exactly what happened to Bath between 2010 and 2012.
While Louis Moody may have been the poster-child of that approach, Donald is at least one of the ‘out of focus guys’ in that picture. He was an All-Black, he was a name the fans and the press would recognise, and he would be the statement of intent to satiate the supporters’ ambition and Craig’s own ego.
One problem though: he didn’t fit the model of Norther Hemisphere rugby. Donald plays with a lucidity which runs contrary to the values of the game north of the Equator, and seems to play from within his own mind – his mystifying ball-usage is the product of an over-active imagination, and a vision for things which simply do not exist in the mud and the rain of English rugby.
There’s nothing personal in the gleeful reaction to Donald’s departure. Rather, the supporters will be hoping that his move to Japan curtails Bath’s ‘sign first, think second’ mentality, and that all incoming players from this point fit Gary Gold’s vision for what this team can be.
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