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Rock-solid Stander is as important and immovable as ever

After another dominant performance against Samoa, Stander is primed to play a key role for Ireland in the quarter-finals.

Stander was Ireland's top carrier against Samoa.
Stander was Ireland's top carrier against Samoa.
Image: Jayne Russell/INPHO

JOE SCHMIDT IS a man who places an awful lot of stock in trust. That is why when things are not going according to plan, as with much of Ireland’s stay in Japan, he will always keep faith in his most trusted lieutenants.

Rory Best falls into this category. Even when he was in worrying form before the tournament, there was no real sense that Schmidt was going to drop his captain. He backs his men to play their way into form.

The only reason we have not seen more of Johnny Sexton over the last few weeks is because Schmidt clearly feels the need to protect his star man in order to have him fit and firing for the quarter-finals. As soon as the result was safe against Samoa, Sexton was pulled from the line of fire. It was also telling that the equally impressive Tadhg Furlong was the first man hauled ashore, just five minutes into the second half.

Schmidt will also be thankful that CJ Stander has come through the pool stages unscathed, although it is rare that the Munster man ever finds himself on the treatment table.

He is the living embodiment of the endless clichés thrown around about how tough rugby players are. Earlier this year, he played an hour against a hugely attritional England team with a fractured cheekbone and eye socket.

And his highly productive 80 minute display against Samoa on Satruday served as a reminder that Stander will have a huge role to play against either New Zealand or South Africa next weekend.

Stander is a player who has tended to divide opinion among Ireland supporters. He is far from the most glamorous of back-rows, and during Ireland’s less impressive performances his tendency to go straight to ground when in possession is often a source of frustration when supporters are looking to see more creativity and ambition from the team.

cj-stander-celebrates-after-scoring-their-sixth-try-with-peter-omahony-and-joey-carbery Stander is congratulated after scoring Ireland's sixth try in Fukuoka. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His place in the side has come under question more than once, particularly when fellow No 8 Jack Conan has been playing well for Leinster.

Conan is a very different player to Stander, possessing a greater range of passing while also showing more of an ambition to break the gainline.

Yet there is a reason Conan has failed to dislodge his Munster rival over the last few years. Stander is not the type of player to grab many headlines, but Schmidt places huge value on the security he provides.

The fact that Conan’s World Cup was ended by a foot injury before the round two defeat to Japan only further cemented Stander’s importance to this campaign.

Stander has played more minutes than any other Ireland player in Japan, and in a team that has under-performed for much of the pool stages, he is one of the few players who has come through that rocky patch with his place in the starting XV beyond doubt.

He finished the Samoa game with a hugely impressive return of 22 carries for 29 metres.

No Ireland player carried more, while only Jordan Larmour (65 metres) made more ground in possession. Only Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Luke McGrath made more passes.

Stander showed excellent footwork and threw a clever offload in the lead up to Sexton’s opening try, while in the second half he provided another two big moments, crossing for his own try (his 10th for Ireland) and producing a big turnover. He also took on the captaincy when Best was replaced with half an hour left to play, his excellent work-rate never slipping as he finished the game out.

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The only blot on his copybook was some poorly timed tackles in the first half. While he only needed to make a total of five tackles against a limited Samoa team, he will be annoyed to have missed two. But that was the only minor complaint in an otherwise dominant and industrious performance. 

Regardless of whether it is South Africa or New Zealand waiting for Ireland next weekend, Stander will once again be central to the way Ireland approach the game.

Both of Ireland’s potential opponents are hugely physical, and Schmidt will look to Stander to provide his team with security on the ball, offering a platform for Sexton and Murray to try make something happen. It is in these types of games where Stander tends to shine, his battering-ram qualities vital to Ireland gaining momentum – remember his role during those exhausting 41 phases in the lead-up to Sexton’s drop-goal in Paris last year. He always gives his half-backs time to settle and assess the scene. 

Ireland have failed to inspire much confidence in Japan up to this point. At various stages they have looked laboured, stripped of confidence and low on ideas.

The hope is that Schmidt has kept some tricks up his sleeve for the knock-out stages as Ireland look to reach the semi-finals for the first time. Regardless of what approach Ireland take to next weekend, expect Stander to be front and centre.

Of all of Schmidt’s regular first team players, few have received as much consistent criticism down the years.

Yet he heads into the biggest game of the Schmidt era as important and unmovable as ever.

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