CJ Stander man of the match on barnstorming Ireland debut against Wales

The Munster back row was superb on his Test debut for Joe Schmidt’s side.

GROWING UP ON the family farm in George, South Africa, CJ Stander couldn’t have imagined what his rugby career had in store for him.

Certainly not a man of the match award on his international debut for Ireland against Wales.

CJ Stander hands off Sam Warburton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The dynamic back row has collected these gongs with utter ease over the past two seasons with Munster and when his time in green came after a three-year residency period, Stander did what he knows best.

His work rate across 80 minutes was truly breathtaking, particularly in a first half where he announced himself as a new star of Irish Test rugby. Those watching across the other Six Nations nations who weren’t totally aware of Stander before this afternoon will be now.

The 25-year-old made 23 carries across the course of a brilliant Six Nations game that ended in a 16-16 draw. This was a brutal, high-tempo and thrilling contest and Stander looked totally at home in the exalted surroundings. With 11 tackles, his work rate extended into defence.

The truly special players are those who look even better when they take a step up in standard, be that from Vodacom Cup to Currie Cup to Super Rugby with the Blue Bulls, or from Pro12 into Champions Cup with Munster.

Stander’s long run of excellence with Munster was echoed here at the Aviva, and the signs are that he is even more effective with this higher quality around him. A genuine Test player.

The Welsh back row of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau were lauded in the build-up to this game – and were very good – but Stander looked their equals today.

CJ Stander during the National Anthems Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

An astounding first-half performance saw Stander carry the ball 12 times, while he was near the top of the tackle charts too with seven inside those eye-wateringly physical opening 40 minutes.

The numbers are impressive, but meaningless. What really matters is that Stander made yardage with almost every touch of the ball. One of his first carries was an intelligent pick up and jam through an empty ruck in front of him, demonstrating that it’s not all about brawn.

Defensively, even when he had to fill the outside channels, Stander managed well. Jonathan Davies’ piston-like fend found the Munster man’s face at one point in the first half, but Stander scragged the Welsh centre’s upper body and used his momentum to bring the contest to ground.

There was a spill forward early in the second half as Ireland attacked inside the Welsh 22, followed soon after by another one on the ground, major frustrations for Schmidt’s side in hugely important territory. Those errors will be highlighted in the review.

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At the breakdown, Stander didn’t quite get the reward he has with Munster, though he was in many good positions over the ball and didn’t hear the whistle he clearly expected from referee Jerome Garces.

Devin Toner and CJ Stander tackle Jamie Roberts Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That was something of a theme for Ireland against the Welsh, and Stander will have learned that he needs to be even swifter into the jackal position and even more powerful in getting that tug on the ball that referees often equate to a penalty.

Like all of Ireland’s players under Schmidt, there are work-ons for Stander in the weeks and months ahead, but the hugely promising thing is that the back row will get even better. A number eight by trade, he re-adapted into the blindside role with ease and with huge appetite.

With Tommy O’Donnell and Jamie Heaslip excellent alongside him, as well as Rhys Ruddock off the bench, Stander ensured that Ireland always had parity at the ruck area at the very least.

They were effective in their clearouts, aided by the likes of Nathan White and Rory Best, ensuring that Ireland’s attack was often effective too. Stander even added in a handful of short passes to show that he has handling qualities that will continue to get better. 

Ireland debuts don’t get much better than this in an individual sense, but Stander himself will simply be disappointed that he wasn’t on a winning team. A mark of the man.

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Murray Kinsella

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