CJ Stander: Progress and Opportunities

Posted: November 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

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When CJ Stander first signed for Munster as a project player, it would be fair to say that he did not make an immediate impact on the province. He played the majority of his rugby in the British and Irish Cup for Munster ‘A’ as he was ineligible to play in what was then the Heineken Cup, and it took him a season to find his feet. An early hand injury didn’t help matters. His wife, Jean-Marie (his biggest fan judging from her Twitter account), indeed encouraged and supported him throughout that tough debut season. But the inspiration to keep plugging away and find form came from the most one of the most talismanic players in history to have pulled on the red jersey.

“I remember when I arrived I didn’t play that much in the first year. Every Monday when the team came out, he [Paul O’Connell] just told me to keep the faith, keep the faith. I owe him everything. I stayed here.”

The Munster faithful can thank their stars that Paulie encouraged him to this extent, for a year later Stander became an integral part of the Red Army’s backrow unit, largely due to his ability to rotate between 6 and 8. But now his feet are firmly planted and the number 8 position is his and his alone, and Stander has the ambitions to go with it.

“I want to be the best eight in Europe.” he told The Irish Times this week.

Many who make statements like these are the players who are only starting off with a professional club or players who have moved to Europe after proving their worth on the world stage. Stander is saying this after three seasons in the south-west of Ireland, the first of which being a write-off in terms of playing European rugby. But he is finally well on the way.

Last season he made a massive impact on the province, winning Man of the Match performances regularly throughout the season (eleven in total). He has now amassed 68 appearances for the province, with 22 tries to his name. Not a bad average for the South African. So far this season he has played 478 minutes (8 games) and has four tries to boot.

Stander came to Ireland as a project player, meaning he can qualify to play for Ireland after 36 months of continuous residency immediately preceding the time of ‘playing’ (much like Rickard Strauss). His 36 months will be finished in January.

Many Irish people, notably Ronan O’Gara, believe the time frame is too short and that the IRFU should not be content with signing players who were not deemed good enough to play for their birth countries at senior level. He made this clear in his autobiography:

“Three years is way too little. Even five is too little. Seven isn’t enough either. It has to be ten. Non-negotiable. Deal or no deal.

Take CJ Stander. He’s South African, and he’s 100% proud to be South African. But if he’s not good enough to play for South Africa, he’s got to keep trying. Since when has Ireland become second best?”

A fair argument from a man who is only keeping what is best for Irish rugby in mind. But on the other hand, some players have no problem with it. Darren Cave told the Irish Independent: “I do know that if somebody comes over to a country, buys into the ethos and chooses to play for another country, the country should be honoured to have that player if they want to play for them.”

Another fair argument.

Regardless of opinion, it is the rule at the moment and it is without doubt going to benefit Stander come January. Stander had a chat with Joe Schmidt this week, in which he told him to ‘keep playing like you’re playing and we’ll talk to you come January’.

Stander made his aim of making the Irish team clear since his arrival 34 months ago and, judging from his performances in the last two seasons, has put everything he has into completing his objective.

“It’s great from my side to get that chat with [Schmidt] in. He knows what my plan is and I know what his plan is. That’s also a good thing. I try to be as good as I can be in the jersey I’m playing. If I’m getting judged for Munster, I’m going to get the same judgment from up there.”

Competition for places is what makes a team progress, and Stander will put massive pressure on Jamie Heaslip and the rest of the backrow forwards when he qualifies, especially if he continues with the rich run of form he is currently in. He is a fantastic ball carrier and seems to have developed a habit of performing and scoring when it’s needed most. This Saturday will see him line up against Treviso in Thomond Park and will no doubt look to add to his try tally.

Some people may be unhappy with the fact he will have the opportunity to pull on the green of Ireland rather than the green of the Boks, but at the end of the day he has already committed three years of his life (not to mention his family’s) to Irish Rugby. In my opinion, he deserves his chance. 

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