IRB Sevens- a star is born
Declan O'Donnell had never even been to Westpac Stadium before this year's Wellington sevens, but you get the feeling the young star will be back.
The questions now are what coloured jersey will he be wearing and can the 20-year-old Waikato Wonder emulate his sevens feats in fifteens?
O'Donnell was a virtual unknown three days ago, but after scoring 10 tries in two days, including a hat-trick against England in the final of the NZI sevens, he's a household name.
There's plenty to like about the red-haired Maori boy of Irish descent and it's not just the bright red boots, the cheeky rat's tail or the Carlos Spencer-esque grin. O'Donnell's family roots incidentally have strong links to Horowhenua.
Most importantly, O'Donnell runs with balance, speed, and acceleration. He can pick his side when he steps defenders because he hangs in midair while they react. He can pass both sides, and at 94kg is big enough to go through when required.
It's an intoxicating mix that caught Kiwi coach Gordon Tietjens' eye at a Te Rapa club tournament last November.
"It's quite amazing really. I identified him only about eight or nine weeks ago playing in a tournament in Te Rapa, just a club tournament.
"I picked him originally as an emerging player, he was a reserve and wasn't even going with us when I took a young team over to the Gold Coast, but you could just see these little glimpses."
Cue a fatherly chat, the same one Tietjens has given to countless young players with the rugby world at their feet, but blinkers on their eyes.
"Obviously getting fitter and stronger and faster [was key], but he's worked really hard and he's been through a difficult time lately as well. He's put that all behind him and, let's face it, a lot of people know who Declan O'Donnell is now.
"To score three tries like that [in the final] was outstanding ... beating good rugby players with a lot of pace, pure strength and power, certainly he's a player with a big future."
That "difficult time" has been the aftermath of O'Donnell's involvement in a brawl at a Hamilton night club, a saga that's still before the courts.
It must have seemed a world away as he turned a packed Westpac Stadium into his playground.
"I've never experienced anything like that, my first time being here and we won it," O'Donnell beamed after the final.
"It's just amazing, I'm excited and I'm just looking forward to a good night."
A centre, wing and sometime fullback for his club Te Rapa since leaving Hamilton Boys' High School, O'Donnell is treading a well-worn path – think Victor Vito.
It is success which has its roots in the nurturing sevens environment Tietjens has created.
O'Donnell said he was surprised by his breakout performance, but it was no fluke. Powerful 105kg wing Frank Halai and lightning-fast former Wellingtonian Buxton Popoalii were not far behind.
They all played with a confidence borne of the sevens "family" and of Tietjens' insistence on a tough and disciplined training regime.
O'Donnell had a reputation in club rugby as a player who was hot and cold. He made Waikato's pre-season training squad but got cut, scored brilliant tries then went missing, until now.
"It was the best footy I've played. I don't know if it was me or the boys," he said on Saturday night.
"It was like a family out there, everybody had each other's backs and just worked."
Provided O'Donnell continues to do just that his goal of making the Chiefs Super wider training group next year seems probable rather than possible.
* Meanwhile, New Zealand Sevens captain DJ Forbes has been ruled out of the Las Vegas tournament starting on Saturday morning (NZT) because of a hamstring injury.
Forbes injured his hamstring two minutes into New Zealand's defeat of England in the final on Saturday night and has been replaced by Waikato's Rory Grice who is set to make his New Zealand sevens debut.
Source: Toby Robson