Monday 19 February 2018

Stander v Heaslip: The battle for Ireland's Number Eight spot

O'Mahony return sets No 8s on an Ireland collision course ahead of Aviva clash

Heaslip and Stander
Heaslip and Stander
Munster Rugby player CJ Stander. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

So far, all of CJ Stander's seven Ireland caps have come alongside the man he will face off against on Saturday afternoon, Jamie Heaslip.

The South African-born back-row has been Ireland's No 6 since his international debut, but the return to fitness of his provincial captain Peter O'Mahony complicates matters.

It's exactly the kind of complication Joe Schmidt will welcome as he continues to plot ahead towards the November internationals. Due to the attritional nature of the position, he rarely has a full menu to select from when it comes to his back-rows, but that prospect is edging closer.

O'Mahony came through his return from injury unscathed against Zebre and is primed to come on to the Munster blindside at the Aviva Stadium. Seán O'Brien is due back imminently.

When fit, the Corkman has been a guaranteed starter under Schmidt whose first-choice back-row has consistently been the trio O'Mahony, O'Brien and Heaslip.

Injuries to O'Mahony and O'Brien have afforded opportunities to others like Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier over the course of the three seasons the New Zealander has been in charge, but no one has challenged the hegemony of the trusted combination like Stander who has started this season in the kind of form that will have the Lions selectors taking notice.

Jamie Heaslip of Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip of Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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How Schmidt gets that quartet into a starting three will be fascinating to watch next month, but the appearance of O'Mahony means that Heaslip now has a legitimate rival for his No 8 jersey for the first time in almost a decade.

Over the course of the past nine season, the Naas man has been a fixture at the base of Ireland's scrum. A model of consistency, he is one of Irish rugby's most valuable players and that status earns him his place as one of the IRFU's top earners.

He has started the season well, showing a more direct approach as part of Leinster's new game-plan.

Likewise, Stander has torn into the games to date and already has two tries to his name. Nobody in the Guinness Pro12 has taken on more ball, while he is also adding a passing dimension to his work and has thrown five off-loads to boot.

Head-to-head, their records so far in this campaign appear to be even enough. Stander ekes out a metre more per carry and looks the more explosive option, but Heaslip makes a lot more tackles and has more turnovers to his name despite playing more than 90 minutes less this season.

Both men do different jobs for their teams, but their performances this weekend will be fundamental to how the game tilts on Saturday.

Anthony Foley has already pinpointed the breakdown as the key battleground this weekend and Heaslip is likely to dedicate plenty of time to securing Leinster ball and disrupting Munster's, while Stander may delegate much of that to O'Mahony and O'Donnell.

If you put the idea of a one-on-one duel to either man, they will brush it aside and say they rarely meet on the pitch such is the helter-skelter nature of the play. They have the same number on their backs, but that's it.

Anyone who caught Stander's turn on Sky Sports' player-mic against Edinburgh saw just how communicative the George native is, while Heaslip's chat is often audible on the ref-mic as he keeps the defensive line moving forward.

Stander is enjoying the work that comes with his favourite position.

"It has always been a case that Peter is a six and I'm at No 8. It will be good to settle into the eight position," he said last week. "I enjoy No 8, there's a lot of freedom there. I think Conor Murray and myself have a good understanding, we know what we are going to do from every scrum and every phase and that extends to Tyler (Bleyendaal).

"I like to be close to those two boys to make decisions on the pitch and back them up.

"The big thing about Peter is another leader coming back and makes the leadership much easier, another voice in there.

"If you are tired and need motivation, you can turn to him and he can turn to you. We are pushing each other hard in that leadership role.

"It (the back-row battle) is going to be one of the big battles on Saturday.

As Ireland's vice -captain and one of the senior men in Schmidt's leadership group, Heaslip is almost nailed on to start at No 8 against New Zealand next month and the presence of a genuine rival should only spur him on.

For Schmidt, it offers options and competition and he will relish the opportunity to see how the duo respond to the challenge when the game kicks off on Saturday.

They might not collide often, but when they do it will be box-office.

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