LOOKING BACK NOW, it’s no surprise that CJ Stander’s first involvement in Test rugby was a carry short off a ruck.
We’re back in 2016 here, CJ Stander making his Ireland debut against Wales at blindside flanker.
Off slow ball, Stander manages to just about eke his way over the gainline, allowing Ireland to get back into their attacking flow on the next phase, with a half-break of the Welsh defence following on the next.
It’s the kind of carry that Stander has selflessly continued to offer for Ireland ever since.
He has made a remarkable 779 carries for Ireland in his 50 Tests [16 carries per game on average] ahead of today’s clash with England, with so many of those carries seeing him thunder into heavy traffic but generally helping Ireland back over the gainline, allowing team-mates to look better on the phases that follow.
In this instance against Wales, Stander was rapidly back onto his feet and two phases later his work-rate around the corner has him back on the ball, this time to pass to Johnny Sexton for a break.
While Stander’s attacking contributions for Ireland have always predominantly been based around ball-carrying in heavy traffic close to the ruck, he is capable of passing the ball too. It’s not the most fluid part of his game, but it has been willfully overlooked at times.
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He has passed and offloaded 222 times in his 50 Tests [four times per game on average] and this example allows Sexton to break into the Welsh 22.
Having cleared out a ruck in the meantime, Stander’s third touch in international rugby sees him make a good decision to pick and sneak away for a carry.
Completing a remarkably busy 60 seconds of action for Ireland on his debut, Stander then makes another carry off scrum-half Conor Murray.
This kind of all-action passage is what Stander’s career with his adopted nation has been built on. Gritty carrying close to the ruck – the kind most players show nowhere near as much relish for – has been a staple, with the Munster man setting the tone with 23 carries on his debut in 2016.
Stander also completed all 12 of his tackles in that 16-16 draw with Wales, setting a standard of defensive accuracy and application that simply hasn’t let up. Over the course of his 50 Tests, Stander has completed 502 tackles [10 per game on average] at an excellent success rate of 92%.
While every player would love to be the one flinging offloads and beating defenders regularly, everyone can’t be that player. Everyone shouldn’t be that player either. Rugby takes a combined, collective effort featuring skillsets of all types. Stander’s role with Ireland has been about tight carrying, dogged tackling, set-piece accuracy, ceaseless work-rate, and a very low error count. The last of those things is vastly underrated. Top-level rugby games are decided by errors as often as they are by moments of magic.
Stander was picked for Ireland by Joe Schmidt as soon as he was eligible for the start of the 2016 Six Nations and has essentially been selected for every single frontline Test they have played since when he has been fit – which he invariably is.
He was a key figure in the 2016 win over the All Blacks in Chicago, fighting typically hard to score a try in that historic 40-29 success.
Stander started all five of Ireland’s Grand Slam games in 2018, again notching a crucial try as Schmidt’s side sealed the deal in emphatic fashion against England in Twickenham.
Later that year, Stander started all three of Ireland’s summer Tests as they pulled off their first series success in Australia since 1979.
In November 2018, Stander and Ireland beat the All Blacks for a second time.
It’s worth recalling that he also went on the Lions tour in 2017, managing to work his way into the matchday 23 by the third Test and earning his cap off the bench during a dramatic draw with the Kiwis.
Of course, Schmidt’s Ireland era ended in miserable fashion at the 2019 World Cup but Stander was one of the better Ireland players at that tournament, having had his starting spot strongly questioned by fans and the media during the build-up.
Consistency and durability have been two of Stander’s key traits in his Ireland career and he has maintained them in the Andy Farrell era too. Like Schmidt and Warren Gatland, Farrell is clearly a fan of Stander’s, picking him to start for 13 of 14 Tests.
To his credit, Stander has added strings to his bow in more recent times.
He was always capable of competing for turnovers at the breakdown but Stander has honed his craft in this area to become a key jackler for Ireland.