Sunday 21 October 2018

Stander's evolution highlights contrast with Boks

Whether it's project players, World Cup bids or Coetzee's precarious scenario, there is no shortage of sideshows to this mouth-watering November Test

CJ Stander in action during an Irish training session at Carton House this week. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander in action during an Irish training session at Carton House this week. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

If you ever find yourself needing to prove the difference in rugby attitudes between Ireland and South Africa, the transformation of CJ Stander since his move to the northern hemisphere makes for a pretty convincing 'Exhibit A'.

When Stander arrived in Limerick just over five years ago he came with great pedigree - with Super Rugby experience for the Bulls and as a former South Africa U-20 captain - but he also came to Ireland as a rather one-dimensional player.

Like any 22-year-old professional, Stander still had plenty to learn but you could clearly see how deeply ingrained the South African philosophy was in him; he knew little else but to tuck the ball under his arm and charge forward in a straight line.

Because our players aren't naturally as big as their South African counterparts, there is a greater emphasis on fitness and technique here, and five years on, it is obvious Stander has made huge improvements and has become a much more rounded and effective player.

Struggled

Stander may have struggled in the early part of his Munster career but, crucially, he also began his time at the province with a huge appetite for work and a point to prove to those who doubted him back home in South Africa.

I love the way he plays, the passion he has, and the way he has been willing to improve his skill-set.

He has become much more evasive in his running, his work around the breakdown is really accurate, and his tackling technique has improved immeasurably.

Stander is an emotional guy and while the spotlight may have been shining elsewhere in the build-up to this evening's game, he will be desperate to make his presence felt at the Aviva Stadium.

I cannot even imagine the emotional turmoil that playing against your own country would generate, and when you add in the devastation he felt after his sending-off in last summer's first South Africa Test in Newlands, he is bound to be wound up today.

Ireland may have claimed a famous victory that day but it was an occasion to forget for Stander on a personal level, and even when he returned for the third Test in Port Elizabeth he looked subdued and nervous.

For all of the elation that Ireland felt in Cape Town after their first victory on South African soil, we cannot forget too that it was a defeat that cut the home side deep, no more so than Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee, who found himself the subject of glaring public scrutiny after just one outing in charge with the national team.

I was in South Africa for the tour last year and the thing that struck me in the build-up to the first Test was the optimism and the impression that there was going to be big change in South African rugby; the mindset was going to be different, they were going to be more attacking and embrace an element of flair rather than turn their noses up at it.

They wanted to adapt a more attacking structure away from the traditional style of the Springboks but it's hard to change the mindset of a team at any level in rugby, particularly in such a short space of time.

There was pressure from the South African public to see more tries, and a more expansive style, not just from the national team but from the Super Rugby teams too, as a South African side have not prevailed in that competition since the Bulls in 2010.

There were winds of change circling around Springbok rugby this time last year.

A rugby reformation was sought in the Republic, with the likes of fly-half Elton Jantijes trusted to set the tone.

South Africa may have recovered to win the series against Ireland but that opening Test match has continued to be a reference point during a turbulent 18 months for the Springbok head coach.

Coetzee is a very likeable man but he had a rough run of it last year; winning just two Rugby Championship games and then suffering November international defeats to Italy, Wales and England.

The whole nation seems to have an opinion on the Springboks; rugby is like a religion in the country, and that is impossible to escape when you're going though such a dreadful run of results.

Despite the huge pressure to introduce a more expansive game-plan, while delicately balancing a new selection policy for overseas-based players, and with the fast-approaching racial quota for the Springboks waiting in the wings, Coetzee has managed to steady the ship somewhat in 2017.

And now he has a big opportunity to prove his Springboks are moving in the right direction following their recent Jekyll and Hyde Rugby Championship campaign that they were unfortunate not to finish with a thrilling win against the All Blacks.

How Coetzee must envy the current stability enjoyed by Joe Schmidt, although the Kiwi knows that he is only two November Test defeats away from similar scrutiny here.

As Rassie Erasmus's impending arrival as director of rugby looms over him, Coetzee must mastermind a European tour that appears a world away from 12 months ago, and what better manner to kick that off than with a victory against Ireland, the side that tripped his reign up before it even got out of the blocks?

With further Tests to come against France, Italy and Wales, a loss this evening could deflate the already-delicate confidence of a side in transition, and re-start the hum of the death knell for a head coach juggling a dizzying amount of variables.

Despite the uncertainty in Springbok rugby, a victory against Ireland could spur them on to a northern hemisphere tour which would mark 2017 as a progressive year, halfway through a World Cup cycle.

charges In their nine Test matches in 2017 to date, the only side to get the better of Coetzee's charges have been the All Blacks, who appear more likely to lap the chasing pack than be caught any time soon.

One thing that is for sure today, though, is the ongoing battle to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup will remain an interesting sideshow to this Test match, particularly in the wake of IRFU chief executive Philip Browne's strongly-worded letter to the world body expressing concerns around the South African bid.

With the defeat to South Africa in the technical review process for the 2023 tournament still stinging, you can be certain a Test match loss to the Springboks would rub salt into the wounds at the top of Irish rugby.

For all of their differences in physical make-up, coaching scenarios and apparent ability to host a Rugby World Cup, on the field there should be very little between these two sides.

It's the perfect way to kick off what will hopefully be a successful series of November internationals for Schmidt's side.

Irish Independent

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