'I see him as a hero' - CJ Stander welcomes Paul O'Connell praise
Munster backrow has embraced Ireland - and is ready to repay IRFU's faith on the world stage
If you were a dyed in the wool USA rugby fan you would have paused for thought at the announcement in Soldier Field last Saturday that the 62,300 crowd was the biggest attendance ever at a Test match in the country. And it didn't involve your team. Rather, two interlopers drew the crowd. Well, more like one with the other filling in a few spaces.
For Ireland it was home from home, evidence both of the spread of Irish people around the world and our willingness to hop on a plane to support our teams. An American colleague was deeply envious of the scene. "It's got to be worth a few points when you have a crowd like that," he said.
Interestingly a player who appreciates this absolutely is one who is not Irish, but South African. It doesn't come across like PR when Christiaan Johan Stander, originally from farming country on the beautiful Western Cape, talks about the value of Ireland's support. Our cynical side would think that it suits him to say that, for Stander is acutely aware that he is a blow-in. Equally there may be no cynical side whatsoever to this man. What you see is what you get. And what Paul O'Connell sees is someone dedicated equally to the causes of Munster and Ireland.
"In the way he behaves, trains and treats people most of the time he is more of a Munster man than some of the guys who were born and raised in the province," O'Connell says.
The ease with which players can qualify for another country is wrong. Which is not to say that those who make the transition do so with no respect for their new life.
"There's been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about that," Stander says. "Personally, it is tough to hear that people don't want you in the team but it's also great to hear that, because I see Paul as a hero, someone to look up to, so to hear something like that from him - there's no words to describe the feeling.
"It just drives me more, from both sides - the positive and the negative, to play harder and prove myself, week in, week out, to show I want to be here. I feel that. I've said this before: when I arrived at Munster, I was a good player, probably average, no world-beater. Then I got over here and Munster spent a lot of time and money on me, so too the IRFU, and Joe and the coaches spent a lot of time with me to start international rugby. So I feel that I want to give something back to the province, Munster, and the IRFU and the Irish supporters."
It probably has something to do with the way it all started. Man of the match on a try-scoring debut against Wales last season, all was right with the world. He made 12 tackles and carried more than any other Irish forward. The script took a dark twist four months later on his first game for his adopted country on South African soil. Coincidentally it was last weekend's referee, Mathieu Raynal, who sent him off in that first Test in Newlands.
"That was the lowest point I've ever been in my life," he said. "About anything."
Chicago was his second time overseas with Ireland, an altogether different affair. If a few months previously he had needed Donnacha Ryan literally to help him off with his gear, as he sat in the changing room, in shock, this time they were both doing a lap of honour after another historic event. The win in Cape Town had been impossible for Stander to enjoy. Last weekend he was euphoric.
Again he had played a leading role. The stats tell you that he made 14 tackles and got over for another try. What they don't record is his block on Owen Franks as the All Black prop was en route to the side of the ruck where he might have stopped Conor Murray for the scrumhalf's try in the first half. It's not something he pre-planned, he claims.
"No, I won't say it's something we practise at all. In fairness I'd probably get into trouble again if I do that, so I won't."
In fairness it was an example of one of the little things the All Blacks have perfected over the years, another layer in what makes them so formidable. As a kid on the family farm outside George, Stander looked at New Zealand in a very different way to a kid on a farm in, say, Tipperary. As in, they were beatable. The Boks always fancied their chances in that fixture for circa 1995, when Stander tuned in to rugby, they were the top two countries in the world.
"We'd beat them one week and then lose the week after that and then beat them again," he says. "So there was a lot of confidence. New Zealand were just another team, so go out there and just be physical: beat them up and win the match."
It's different with Ireland. Still he reckons that despite the short preparation time they went to Chicago believing it could be their day. And that when it didn't look like being their day, they held fast. Like the ping pong nature of New Zealand's opening try, which had the look of 'one of those days' about it. Or more acutely, when Scott Barrett's try put just four points between the teams with 15 minutes left.
The scene behind the posts, Stander maintains, was one of calm. They knew they would have to score again to get home, and had a fair clue about to how to sort it. So it must have been sweet, a few minutes later, to be breaking from that scrum around the Ireland 10m mark and seeing Simon Zebo's perfect kick and chase down the line?
"That's the one where you're a forward you get up from a scrum or you're running a line and you can see the backs are doing stuff that's working," he says. "That's when you get that extra 10 per cent that you need going into the last 10 minutes.
"You get energy when stuff works. The props and second rows work hard in the scrum, and when they look up and there's a mistake or we've gone backwards, that's when you're tapping energy from your body.
"But when you've made 50 metres, that's when you get charged up again and take that next step. That's what drives the team in the last 10 minutes."
If next week we get another endgame like that then this fixture will take on a life of its own, for the idea of Ireland being neck and neck with New Zealand three times running was fanciful as recently as June 2012 when the All Blacks were unloading 60 points in Hamilton. Despite the virtual consensus that revenge for New Zealand is unavoidable, Ireland have a different mindset now.
"Oh yeah, for sure," Stander says. "We have to use that going into this match. I won't say there has always been a mental block but now that barrier is broken, we have to start thinking about what we can achieve as a team, to put in a shift, make it two from two - that would be stuff you can write in your book one day. So I'm looking forward to next week. It's going to be a great game."
Autumn rarely delivers edge of the seat stuff in Lansdowne Road. Typically it's the Six Nations by the time the supporters are on the right frequency. They are tuned in now though to a game that was sold out long before the events of last weekend. And those supporters, Stander reckons, have a big role to play.
"They are the best in the world. I've never experienced something like that. Just to be running on the pitch and have them supporting you every week, you want to give something back. I feel honoured and really blessed to be in this team, and part of my adopted country.
"It is difficult sometimes when people say: 'What's this guy doing? He doesn't have a clue?' But I'm buying in as much as I can, trying to adopt another culture."
Not so much a blow-in, as a gale force wind.
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