Monday 5 December 2016

Comment: South African inspires Joe Schmidt's lions of spring

Published 07/02/2016 | 17:29

CJ Stander, Ireland, is tackled by Sam Warburton, Wales.
CJ Stander, Ireland, is tackled by Sam Warburton, Wales.

A cartographer mapping CJ Stander’s rise could hardly be faulted for simply retracing the trajectory of a sky rocket, engines ablaze, shooting skyward from the Cape Canaveral launch-pad.

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With a single precipitous upward flourish of pen upon paper, the atlas of Stander’s jaw-dropping international take-off would be complete.

A stratospheric Ballsbridge ascent ushered the Munster captain to new terrain at the northern pole of the old game’s hierarchy.

And in so doing he helped to airlift his adopted nation from the pit of World Cup despair.

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A stunning opening salvo from Stander felt like an eviction notice to the virus of negativity that has been squatting in Irish rugby’s soul since the autumn.

Liam Williams is tackled by Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip,
Liam Williams is tackled by Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip,

If the World Cup brutally exposed the myth of Joe Schmidt's side residing among the game’s aristocracy, Stander magnificently railed against any ebbing of Ireland's Six Nations imperium.

The anti-climatic nature of a draw, of course, is hardly the fix the adrenaline junkies crave.

Ireland's Andrew Trimble is tackled by Wales' Alun Wyn Jones during the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Andrew Trimble is tackled by Wales' Alun Wyn Jones during the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium

It immediately steals the dream of a Grand Slam; Triple Crown ambitions, too, are stillborn; additionally an epic, absorbing, exhausting contest left the Irish changing room resembling A&E room.  And that just six days before they return to the championship battlefield in Paris.

So it was an entirely understandable that Schmidt spoke immediately afterwards of a sense of deflation.

Yet there was, at least, the feeling of a team reconnecting with its public after so much of that bond was amputated by the World Cup misadventure.

Ireland's performance was imperfect:  Failing to score for more than 40 minutes after establishing a 13-0 platform speaks of a team operating someway below its 2015 peak.

Yet an injury-depleted side reached deep down to locate some of their old defiance; there was an investment of industry, pleasingly flourishes of invention, bucket loads of defiance.

Stripped of those twin behemoths of charisma and achievement, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, jolted by the provinces' tame European meltdown, Schmidt ached for a mainspring to redirect Ireland back to the very best of themselves.

He found him in a South African who arrived in Limerick three years ago with little other than a rejection letter from his home land.  It read, bluntly, pitilessly:  Too small, won't make it.

Here Stander offered an impressive rebuke to that cheerless assessment:  He was a ball-carrying totem, a defensive Hercules, a mammoth wall of green defiance.

Stander was a tide of yearning that simply refused to ebb.  His craving was infectious.

Perhaps it was all those concussive blows taking their toll, but in recent months Jonathan Sexton has been but a shadow of the playmaker of old.

Here though the quarterback answered Ireland's hankering for a presiding genius.

Sexton inhabits the border territories where shining courage intersects with the badlands of personal disregard.  Once more he took the now compulsory blow to the head area; yet groggy and clearly in some discomfort, he slotted a high degree of difficulty penalty to seal a deserved draw.

Rob Henshaw again exhibited gifts that came to him in the cradle. Simon Zebo offered tantalising flashes of his unorthodox menace. Jamie Heaslip reminded his critics that when the mood takes him, he becomes a force of nature;  Conor Murray draped himself in the flag of a world class scrum-half.

In a contest of harrowing physicality, Ireland refused to shirk.  The consequence was a compelling contest.  At once brutal and beautiful.  One minute trench warfare, the next moving to a samba beat.

It was not enough to win, but it hinted at the rebirth of hope.    

As the nation’s bedraggled flagship listed and groaned against Argentina four months ago, it felt as if something elemental had been lost, as if Ireland’s days in the rugby sun had been consigned to history.

There were murmurings about Schmidt mislaying his Midas touch; the saintly crown of light about his person seemed not to burn so bright.

If the kick-chase philosophy that brought those back to back Six Nations titles could rarely be confused with the beautiful game, it was at least varnished with the sheen of glory.

But the Argentina debacle radically altered the narrative.

All at once unease there was a growing unease at a conservative game plan, at a failure to reseed the team with the coltish daring of Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier or Garry Ringrose.

All the hope that had accompanied Ireland into the World Cup fragmented into a thousand tiny pieces.

Had Ireland lost here, the uncomfortable interrogations could have left Schmidt feeling he had been summoned before a 16th century Star Chamber.

But this performance ushered Ireland back towards terrain that for the last two Six Nations has been their natural habitat.

When the deflation of a tied game dissipates, it might be remembered as a day when Schmidt's lions of spring went a long way toward re-announcing themselves.

And when an adopted South African signposted the route back to the stars.

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