Sunday 22 September 2019

Making hay in the real world

The All Blacks game will be fast and furious, but CJ Stander will stay calm before the storm

CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The week of an All Blacks game is a big week. Given all the requests to try and sniff out tickets you'd say this one is a lot bigger than most. So CJ Stander, not a great man at staying calm in these situations, will likely be suffering from what he calls PMS: pre-match stress.

To alleviate this he has, excuse the pun, gone back to his roots. This involves quality time playing his farm simulator game on PlayStation. This is no shoot 'em up Call of Duty, as he explained in the excellent book No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland:

CJ Stander of Ireland during the 2018 Mitsubishi Estate Ireland Series 1st Test match between Australia and Ireland at Suncorp Stadium, in Brisbane, Australia. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
CJ Stander of Ireland during the 2018 Mitsubishi Estate Ireland Series 1st Test match between Australia and Ireland at Suncorp Stadium, in Brisbane, Australia. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"It's probably a game for ages three to 10, but I've always been a big kid and I love it. You're farming on the computer. You have your John Deere tractors and your Massey Fergusons and anything you want. You have sheep and dairy cows and you have to milk them by pressing the buttons. It gives you the feeling of farming without all the hard work. Ideal. It calms me down."

When Stander tunes in to it he logs out of everything else and becomes, as he put it himself last week, "OCD on that".

He added: "I don't play a lot but when I do I'm really deep into it and it breaks up my day and breaks up my concentration on the game. But I'm not stressed as much thinking about the game and the week's training the whole time. You need that break. You need to get a break during the week and enjoy your hobbies. And that's one of my hobbies."

Its first cousin is gardening - real rather than simulated. Stander's Limerick gaff is on almost an acre. A big space then, he has ploughed and planted and patio'd, and come up with something he loves. From the roses to the lavender to the shift in colour, giving space to evergreens, this farm-boy sounds happy enough with what he's done in his backyard.

"I like the smells when I walk past. I do some things differently to some people probably. And if I wake up, the back window from my bedroom is showing onto the back of the garden and I open the window every morning and the dogs come round, and I see the garden at 7 o' clock. It's a great way to start your day. Now, in the winter, I dunno if I'm going to see that - you might have to wait a few hours - but it gives me a lot of joy."

Add the two images of CJ Stander and there's some separation between them and a man who made his name in rugby as a wrecking ball. Hard to believe but this is his sixth season earning a crust in this country. And in that time he has had to evolve from straightforward demolition derby winner to a bit of Strictly Come Carrying when the need arises. And in the modern game that's more often than not.

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Saturday against New Zealand will be a good measure of that transition. Stander's record against the All Blacks is better than most who've played them three times - a win, a loss, a draw - but getting into credit will need him literally to be inch perfect. For a carrying forward now, the challenge, aside from sheer grunt, is to have enough footwork to go forward.

"You do, so that's the balance," he says. "That's when some good defenders will put you under pressure and sometimes you get a guy who's a bit lazy and he sits and waits for you. And if a guy sits and waits for you, that's what you want. You can see it in his eyes, and in his body. But at this level, at international level, there's not a lot of lazy defenders. You're always under pressure so sometimes you just have to take it, take your medicine. Carry, and if you go forward, great; if you go backwards, you're going to get trouble on Monday! There's nothing you can do about it.

"Yeah, sometimes you can hear your name getting called out - but we do that as well to the opposition. You can hear the opposition call your name out so you just have to change what you're doing in the game. Sometimes it's stronger than other games but it's a thing that happens. You need to adapt, otherwise you'll become extinct."

You wouldn't be too sure the Kiwis would dial up that number, for fear it would be interpreted as flattery. But they have a fair idea who and what they will be dealing with in Lansdowne Road. The follow-on from Chicago 2016 was extraordinary by the sanitised standards of today, just 24 months later.

"I remember it was a physical game," he says with some understatement of the rematch two weeks later. "They came out that day. They were a bit hurt from Chicago and they came out and took us on in our back yard. They took Robbie (Henshaw) out in the first 10 minutes. You could feel it in the carries and the tackles and even in the mauls. You could just feel it, this is the one, the big match-up. I was disappointed I couldn't stay on the pitch and finish that game because those are the ones you want to be involved in. That day we were on the wrong side of the scoreline but it's a game where people stood up. That was war."

Interestingly, Joe Schmidt has an emotional response to prompts of what happened that day. Never mind the photographic recall, he gets agitated on the subject.

"Yeah, that's him," Stander says. "Ask him now. That's what makes him one of the greatest coaches I've worked with. He cares, you know, when you go out there. He cares about the people he picks in the team. When there's a few injuries, he will remember that even better. That's something I don't think we'll mention but it will be in the back of our minds going into the game."

And at the forefront will be getting the balance right between playing on the edge and not going over it, into penalty territory. Keeping penalties to respectable levels is a top priority in the camp, one they are very good at. And staying on the right side of the high tackle protocol has, so far, not been an issue. They work hard on flying under the radar.

"Yeah, it's something you've got to train," Stander says. "You've got to train that muscle memory during the week so when you go into the game it's a habit. Create the habit during the week and when the weekend comes you know your stuff and you can be physical. A lot of things change in that last millisecond on the pitch so sometimes you're wrong and sometimes you're right and you just have to take your medicine if you're wrong.

"Discipline is a big thing (for us). It's never something we've spoken about a lot because we know that if you make a mistake you let the team down and you let the coaches down . . . Look, I think it's a hot topic now in world rugby but it's not been a hot topic in this squad. We know what's expected from us in our contact entry levels."

He was the victim of a high shot from Israel Dagg in the home leg of those two Tests in 2016. Given the shift in emphasis on safety - notwithstanding Owen Farrell's tackle to close the game against South Africa - we won't be seeing a repeat on Saturday. But, weather permitting, it will be a try-fest for that's what this All Black side are about.

"Yeah, I remember when we were playing them in Chicago we said especially when it gets to 60 (minutes) that's when they really kick on. We need to be in front of them there by two tries, or 14 points or even 17 points because they're going to score two or three tries out of nothing. So that's something we spoke about - I think it's going to bring out some attacking rugby so you know that if you can go for a try then go for it. I think it's going to be an attacking game because they're going to put you under pressure with tries from nowhere. The two tries they scored for the World Try of the Year they scored from 80 metres/90 metres. That's what they can do. You have to put points on the board because that last 20 minutes is when they really kick on, and when that bench comes on they really finish up."

If CJ Stander wants to be alive and kicking at the point when the floodgates open, then he'll need his stress-buster buddy to keep calm in the run-up and conserve energy. A different kind of animal farm.

"Some of the boys play cards but I get too worked-up wanting to win so I'd have gone back to my room to look after my imaginary cows on my imaginary farm in America. You should give it a go. It helps take the anxiety away. For me, anyway."

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