Waikato Wonder out to make his presence felt

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am

Declan O'Donnell was as tense as a coiled spring on that fateful day in November in Waikato when he heard New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens was going to be in the stands.

Perhaps he could catch Tietjens' eye, and it would open the door for him to move from Te Rapa, a small club in Hamilton, and on to bigger and better things.

'I was really nervous. I was told by my club manager that Tietjens would be watching and I knew this was my chance. Luckily, I played well that day,' said O'Donnell, New Zealand's latest sevens sensation.

As soon as he stepped on to the field, O'Donnell shed his anxiety and became an icy-cool try-scoring machine. His Ferrari-like acceleration, a gravity-defying sidestep and balance, and the power to burst through tackles caught the eye of Tietjens.

'I suppose it was pure luck he performed on that particular day,' Tietjens said. 'I went there with an open mind to view players and in this case Declan certainly showed some good skill sets.'

O'Donnell, 20, did not make a grand entry. His debut at the opening leg of the IRB Sevens World Series in Dubai in December last year was low-key. He scored three tries in the preliminary games but was mostly on the bench on the final day, including the 19-14 Cup semi-final loss to England.

His star was born last month, at the Wellington Sevens, scoring 10 tries, including a hat-trick in the 29-14 victory over England in the final.

'I never thought it would happen to me and that I would get the chance to go to all these places - Dubai, George [in South Africa] and now Hong Kong,' O'Donnell said. 'I'm really looking forward to Hong Kong. I have heard so much about it and I can't believe I will be playing in this famous tournament. It is just amazing,'

Already the New Zealand media has likened him to being the next Jonah Lomu or Christian Cullen, who both began their careers in Hong Kong before going on to star for the All Blacks.

'Since I was a kid, my dream has always been to play for the All Blacks and 15s has been my priority. Being picked for sevens is a great honour and this could be my pathway into the 15s,' O'Donnell said. 'Hopefully, this will now give me the opportunity to launch my 15s career and perhaps I can get into a provincial side and maybe next year play in the Super 15. Who knows what can be achieved after that.'

The sky may be the limit for the O'Donnell. He has already scored 20 tries in the IRB Sevens Series this season, just a brace behind the leading try-scorer, South Africa's Cecil Afrika.

'Tietj [Tietjens] has given me the confidence to believe in myself. He says if I have the ball and think I have a chance of scoring a try, then go for it. But all my tries are a combination of hard work put in by the rest of the guys like DJ Forbes. I just finish it off. Hopefully, I will get a couple more in Hong Kong.'

His ability to beat opponents one-on-one is almost matter-of-fact, but it is his sidestep and ability to change direction at the last second that have received rave reviews.

O'Donnell wonders what all the fuss is about. 'I don't really think I have a great sidestep. I just change direction without thinking about it. It just comes naturally.'

Tietjens, who has unearthed 37 All Blacks through sevens, believes O'Donnell could be the next big thing.

'It's a huge call, I know, but Declan's got some traits of Christian Cullen - fast feet, ability to glide and step at pace, and one-on-one you just know he is going to beat the guy,' he said. 'The more I see of him, he has got a bit of Frank Bunce in him as well. I see him as a true centre, a potentially great centre, unbelievably strong defensively and a bit of a mongrel thrown into the mix.'

Like many in New Zealand, O'Donnell comes from a rugby family, with one brother playing for Taranaki and another for the touch team. One of his siblings, Kylen, will be turning out for the Samurai at the Hong Kong Football Club Tens today.

That will set the stage for the 'Waikato Wonder' and an expectant nation after his Wellington heroics. 'That was an unforgettable experience because my parents were in the stands. But now I want to prove that wasn't a one-off thing. I want to tell people I'm not a one-hit wonder. I want to make my presence felt in Hong Kong.'