Friday 23 August 2019

Talking tactics: CJ Stander's switch to the flank opens up more options for Ireland

CJ Stander and the Munster back-row will be aiming to call the shots against Leinster
CJ Stander and the Munster back-row will be aiming to call the shots against Leinster
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For the last couple of years, every time Leinster have faced Munster, it has been a chance to analyse individual battles in the wider context of what it means for Ireland leading in to the World Cup.

Chief among the mouth-watering head-to-heads has been Jack Conan's duel with CJ Stander as he looks to become Ireland's first-choice No 8.

Conan is asked about Stander in every interview and had the Bray native been on media duties this week, you can be sure he would have been quizzed about going up against his international rival.

Those hypothetical questions would have proven futile however, as Johann van Graan has sprung something of a surprise by naming Stander on the flank.

Stander will wear the No 7 jersey at the RDS this afternoon, but it will be fascinating to see if he plays openside or blindside.

In South Africa, the openside often wears six, perhaps Van Graan is sticking to his roots.

Either way, Stander shifting from No 8 begs the question: could this be something we see in the lead-up to, or at, the World Cup? With Dan Leavy missing the tournament and Sean O'Brien still searching for a consistent run of form, Josh van der Flier's return ahead of schedule is timely.

Yet, he too has had his injury problems over the last couple of years and Joe Schmidt will be mindful of how quickly his best-laid plans can be undone.

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Last summer's tour to Australia offered plenty of evidence that suggested the Ireland head coach was very much planning with Japan in mind.

The main thing that most people will remember with regards to Schmidt's team selection is Joey Carbery starting ahead of Johnny Sexton for the first Test.

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But what was equally telling was the back-row that was named for the decisive third Test. Even with Jordi Murphy (a natural openside) fit and available, it was fascinating to see Schmidt go with Stander, Peter O'Mahony and Conan.

Stander wore six that night, but packed down in the scrum at openside.

Although he has predominantly played the majority of his career at blindside, O'Mahony is a menace at the breakdown and his poaching threat is such that he often plays as an openside.

Despite being out-played by the sublime Billy Vunipola last weekend, Conan has arguably been the form No 8 in the country this season.

Conan offers something a bit different from the base of the scrum.

An excellent ball-player, his game intelligence has improved hugely over the last 18 months and his coming-of-age performance in the Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster spoke volumes for how much he has matured.

For all of that, Stander has always been one of Schmidt's first names on the team-sheet, and for good reason.

The 29-year-old never lets his side down and as Schmidt looks to get his best players on the pitch at the same time, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the same back-row that started in Sydney may do so again this year.

Conan deputised well when Stander fractured his face during the Six Nations before losing out when he recovered.

Conan admitted afterwards that he had been hopeful that Schmidt would revert back to himself, Stander and O'Mahony, but instead the call went to O'Brien for the final game against Wales.

While some may argue that a back-row of Stander, O'Mahony and Conan is imbalanced, the trio were deemed effective enough to start against an Australian side that included David Pocock and Michael Hooper – two of the best back-rowers around.

Schmidt will be keeping a close eye on proceedings in Dublin today and he will be quietly pleased to see Stander getting another run out on the flank, because as the Ireland boss learned four years ago in the crushing defeat to Argentina, preparing for all eventualities is paramount come the World Cup.

 

1 – For any back-row to work effectively, the communication and trust between one another has to be strong. In the opening minute of Ireland's third Test win over Australia last summer, we saw that in full effect as Peter O'Mahony (red) brilliantly wins a penalty with CJ Stander (blue) recognising that there was no need for him to commit himself to the breakdown as he appeals to the referee for the turnover.

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2 – O'Mahony (black) has just been at the forefront of a powerful maul off a lineout and is running back in support of his team-mates. Stander (red) steps in as scrum-half and plays the pass to Jack Conan (blue), who after calling for the ball, makes a strong carry in midfield to get Ireland on the front foot.

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3 – Again, here we see an example of knowing when and when not to commit to the breakdown. Conan (blue) puts in a good tackle and this time it is Stander (red) who moves in towards the ball instead of O'Mahony (black) as he trusts his back-row partner to do the job. Having twin threats at the breakdown is a massive fillip for any team.

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4 – Ireland break from deep thanks to a cross-field kick from Johnny Sexton to Keith Earls, who makes ground down the right wing. Conan (blue) does well to keep up with the pacy winger and O'Mahony (red) is first on the scene to make the clear out. Unfortunately, on this occasion O'Mahony goes off his feet and concedes the penalty, but it highlights the back-row working in tandem.

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