Thursday 29 September 2016

'Next time I'm going to sing it perfect' - Ireland's man-of-the-match CJ Stander

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

CJ Stander, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2016, Ireland v Wales. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
CJ Stander, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2016, Ireland v Wales. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Taulupe Faletau during their draw. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

More than a great, frothing ocean of words, perhaps the most succinct summary was delivered in one, simple gesture.

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At the last shriek of Jerome Garces's whistle, Robbie Henshaw put his head in his hands. It was an act that told you Wales had been utterly beatable here. True, at three points up with just eight minutes remaining, they looked to have weathered Ireland's fury. But there had been something faintly supercilious about their approach to the day too.

Some of those working pitch-side described them as giddy in the warm-up, Warren Gatland spending most of it just staring down the pitch at their opponents with a prize-fighter's glare.

Perhaps Wales believed they'd have too much for depleted hosts, that a February Sunday in Dublin - even against a side chasing its third consecutive Championship - could not take them anywhere beyond their range of crisis management. But it took them half an hour to realise that Ireland had their number. Maybe that Schmidt had Gatland's too.

By then, they were 13 points adrift and, palpably, shaken. So if the eventual draw was laudable and absolutely deserved for Ireland, it came too with the sting of regret.

As Jack McGrath put it: "We're obviously disappointed, being 13 nil up and letting them back into it. It's something that we are definitely going to have to work on. But then Wales coming back (to lead) 16-13, I think we fought back well. We could have gone into our shells, but we showed a bit of fighting spirit.

Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Taulupe Faletau during their draw. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Taulupe Faletau during their draw. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

"Still, at the moment, it is really disappointing."

Aggression

Maybe nobody epitomised Ireland's early aggression quite like Andrew Trimble, whose introductory hit on Liam Williams would have registered with passengers on a passing Luas train. Ireland's counter-rucking was immense and, approaching the end of the first quarter, possession stats read 66pc in their favour.

Had their ferocity caught the Welsh off guard?

"Maybe it did, but it's an international match," reflected McGrath. "So I don't think you should expect any less from a team at home. It's definitely something we came into the game looking to do, dominating collisions, dominating rucks. But, coming into the last 10 minutes of the first half, we let them back into it.

"Which isn't good enough."

Three points was, thus, a palpably vulnerable midpoint lead and one hardly reflective of an opening half from Ireland that had been impressively innovative and aggressive.

The scrum, sadly, was the asterisk. Too often the Irish eight had all the solidity of a rickety bridge straddling a river in flood. By the time Toby Faletau crossed Ireland's line on the stroke of half-time, it would have been a surprise if Garces hadn't at least been considering the option of a penalty try and yellow for Nathan White.

Rugby is surely unique at this level in that team selection is routinely dictated by the choice of referee. In this instance, Gatland picked two props he believed could 'work' with Garces. Schmidt had no such luxuries.

"We knew that it would be messy and we probably didn't work the referee well enough either," said McGrath. "It improved a little bit in the second half, but we will have to look pretty closely at the first and see where we went wrong."

The improvement had more to do, frankly, with a stark reduction in scrum time than any technical revolution. Ireland's front five just looks a little pinched at this level. The consolation comes from behind.

As a debutant, CJ Stander had an extraordinary game, albeit his 23 carries yielded a miserly 40 yards, defence dominating the narrative. The match stats suggested that Welsh runners did not make a single line break, quite a tribute to a home team currently operating without a dedicated defence coach.

Ireland, reputedly, made five, but you probably get the picture. Despite both sides playing with genuine width and ambition, space was always at a premium.

No matter, Stander looks a man who could be wearing green for some time, a talent the Springboks may regret overlooking. He'd tried to learn the National Anthem beforehand and was asked afterwards, in that stark, interrogatory way of rugby scribes, to rate his own singing.

"Yeah I was very emotional when I got out," he smiled. "Like it's my first time really getting out there in front of the President and all of the supporters... I'd say 10 (laughs). I was happy enough to be next to Tommy (O'Donnell) and (Conor) Murray and, when I got lost here and there, it's easy enough (for them) just to jump in. Donnacha Ryan stepped up this week and learnt me the whole thing... so I was trying to make him proud!

"There's a guy on YouTube too who tells you what to write down (phonetically) so he helped me a lot. Next time I'm going to sing it perfect with the right words."

On a more serious note, Stander spoke of what this momentous day meant to his family.

"Yeah, I wish my family was here now," he sighed. "When we heard I was on the team it was difficult for them to get over here. My wife was here, I think she's still crying... I'm going to see her now. So it's good. Everyone back home... my phone is going mental. I've got big support from everyone, I can't put into words... all the support.

"It's an unbelievable experience to play in this place in front of this crowd. I never thought I was going to get this opportunity. This week was one of the most emotional weeks I've ever had, walking down from the hotel, getting to the pitch... it's goosebump stuff. I'm so honoured to get this... I'm humbled to get this opportunity."

With 10 minutes of the game remaining, Wales certainly looked the more likely to win, Ireland successfully defending through 26 phases before needless penalty concession allowed Rhys Priestland kick what threatened to be the winning score.

Yet, within seconds the excellent Jonathan Sexton had navigated an equaliser and, thereafter, both teams were just swinging. The ball was being kept alive or, at least, on life support, two teams mentally and physically spent. Next up, Paris and the chaotic, unreadable French. A clairvoyant's nightmare.

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