Wednesday 7 December 2016

'Joe said we'll talk in January' - South African-born CJ Stander could be an Irish international soon

Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30

CJ Stander on the charge against Glasgow
CJ Stander on the charge against Glasgow
For almost two years CJ Stander has been the stand-out performer in the Pro 12

CJ Stander and Joe Schmidt's paths have crossed plenty of times in the past but last week's meeting in Limerick could yet prove to be the most crucial.

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The South Africa-born Stander became Irish-qualified two weeks ago and although it may just have been a mere coincidence that the Ireland coach was in town, Schmidt is certainly keeping a close eye on his progress.

Since arriving on these shores three years ago, Stander has made no secret of his desire to play for Ireland after his home country didn't deem him good enough - despite having captained them at the U-20 World Cup in 2010.

As Schmidt looks to rebuild ahead another disappointing World Cup exit, Stander would seem like an automatic inclusion when the squad reconvenes at Carton House after Christmas.

"I saw him at training last week. We had a quick chat. He just asked me what was my plan and if we were going to go forward," Stander said of his meeting with the New Zealander.

"It was good to meet him on a different side. The previous times, I was just shaking his hand and saying, 'Hey coach, hello' and all that stuff.

"He just said keep playing like you're playing and we'll talk to you come January. I just want to concentrate on myself and Munster.

"It was great from my side just to chat with him about Irish rugby. It means he knows I'm here and he's looking at me and our games. He gave me a few pointers where I can fix my game.

"That's what I need. I want to improve. I want to be the best eight in Europe. It's great from my side to get that chat with him in. He knows what my plan is and I know what his plan is."

At 31, Jamie Heaslip isn't getting any younger but certainly still has plenty of miles left on the clock and the Leinster man will expect to be in the running to become the next Ireland captain after Paul O'Connell's retirement.

But Stander's consistency over the last couple of seasons, coupled with the fact that Anthony Foley has just made him captain for Munster's European campaign, must make him a serious prospect as Schmidt looks to introduce some new blood.

It hasn't been all plain sailing for the 25-year-old however. When he first arrived in Munster, he struggled to make an impression under Rob Penney.

Looking back on his debut season, Stander accepts that he probably expected too much, too soon but that the experience has helped him grow as a player.

"Playing Aberavon and games like that was quite tough," he smiled.

"At that stage, I was thinking, I don't know what's going on. I was good in South Africa and what's going on now playing in the B&I Cup.

"But then afterwards I was sitting down thinking, this is Munster. It's a European giant. You can't just walk in here and expect a starting jersey or a bench jersey.

"I had to work hard for it as any other player would to for his team. I think that kept me on the ground and kept me humble just to work hard and also on the other side, going through all the systems, learning players' and coaches' names and the calls. I think it helped me in the end."

By his own admission, Stander isn't a very vocal type of captain but the phrase 'lead by example' was surely coined for players like him.

He might be slightly disappointed to have added just one man of the match award to the seven he won last season but leading from the front is something that has been instilled in him from an early age.

"I think from when the first time I played rugby so when I was about seven," he recalled as the first time he captained a team back in South Africa.

"I was just bigger than everyone else and the coach was like, 'He loves carrying the ball, he's bigger, he talks a bit so lets make him captain'.

"I've always been a leader. I've been head boy in junior school and senior school. I've always tried to be in front of the pack and then just lead. I think I'm a natural leader.

"It's a big privilege and a big honour. There's a lot of players before me that have captained Munster. When you say something, it has to count. You can't say something just into the air and then no one listens.

"I just try and be more clinical so that when I tell someone they missed a tackle, they can't come back to me and tell me I missed a tackle also.

"I want to be the best I can be in that jersey so that I can help people when they do something wrong."

Ambitions

As Munster get set to embark on another European campaign against Treviso on Saturday, Stander is conscious of the fact that players who harbour ambitions of playing for Ireland, must impress Schmidt in the Champions Cup.

For almost two years now, he has been a stand-out performer in the Pro12 but the standards which he demands of himself are such that there is always room for improvement.

"I try to be as good as I can be in the jersey I'm playing in," he explained.

"If I'm getting judged for Munster, I'm going to get the same judgement from up there (the Irish coaches).

"As a personal point, I want to play the best rugby I can for the best team I can so that means playing for the green (Ireland) jersey.

"I'm passionate about it and it's something I want to do but I just want to concentrate on winning silverware for Munster and playing game by game."

Few would argue that Stander's time in an Ireland jersey won't come soon but for now, it is all about maintaining the quality of his performances and leading Munster in what is a new era.

Irish Independent

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