Friday 15 December 2017

Stephen Hunt: CJ Stander doesn't seem very Irish to me. We must protect our Irish sporting identity

Ireland's CJ Stander has been one of many 'Project Players' in the last few years
Ireland's CJ Stander has been one of many 'Project Players' in the last few years
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When the Six Nations kicks into gear, I like it - because you know it is the time of year when results really matter in football and teams at the top and bottom are under intense pressure. This is when the league starts and when the cup competitions are knocked into shape.

I am not a big rugby fan but these championships get everyone's attention; when I was a youth player at Crystal Palace, from January onwards for a couple of months, we would play on the Saturday morning, and then look forward to an afternoon watching the rugby; the English, Welsh, Irish and Scots lads in the house cheering on their country, most of us not knowing what the hell was going on.

So when CJ Stander scored the third try of his hat-trick last week, I was out of my seat and absolutely thrilled as an Irishman, and for the player. I don't know him but I knew his story. He doesn't seem very Irish to me.

As I got back in my seat, I thought about the lad - I don't know his name but I feel for him - sitting on the bench, or sitting at home, who had been deprived of a cap so CJ Stander could play for Ireland and score a hat-trick against Italy.

This is an Irish lad who has played his schools and club rugby up and down the country, who thought he had a clear pathway to the green shirt. That honour has been snatched away from him so we can sign a brilliant South African who has lived in Ireland for three years.

There were English and Scottish-born players who jumped on the bandwagon to play football for Ireland, and I certainly did not resent them joining the squad at the time. I always welcomed the likes of Liam Lawrence with open arms because I had no fear about fighting for my place, and was pretty ruthless in that regard. It didn't matter who they were.

I won 39 caps. Could it have been 50? I don't know, but, looking back, I do wonder and I do feel for those rugby boys whose Irish careers may have been hindered by Stander. He must feel that the IRFU have let him down, even if Stander's performances are benefitting the Ireland team.

In the case of football, I think the grandparent rule is fair and the majority of non-Irish-born players do have an affinity with Ireland. I do think that is important.

I know the rules are different in rugby, I know the Irish rugby bosses have done nothing wrong under those rules, but I believe, as a nation, Ireland should be concentrating on our own talent, at all levels and in all sports.

Please don't take away our history and identity in sport.

* * * * *

What a week. My head nearly exploded with the thought that we may never see Tiger Woods play golf at the highest level again. It scares the life out of me.

Tiger pulled out of another tournament this week, his second in a row. He couldn't even face the press conference, so he cancelled that as well. On medical advice. That is not good. It's less than 50 days to the start of the Masters. I'm heartbroken he won't be there again. What he would give to get back to his best and compete again.

This past week is the first time since I retired that I really wish I was still playing and chasing a ball, still competing and fighting for a win. Even when I was at a youth game during the week, I found myself running after every ball when it went out of play.

I love this time of year because you know you will be watching athletes in many sports putting in the energy levels that only come from competitive sport. That's what I miss. Although I didn't play at a club at the very highest level, I always enjoyed winning at the extremes of my ability and fitness against them. You can't replicate that on a run around the park.

I'm going to start running with a hurling stick because I'm finding a club, training with them and getting in match-shape to make myself available for games. I need that back in my life and I think I could still manage to play at a reasonable level - if someone wants to take a look at me.

I look at Arsenal playing against Bayern Munich. I was angry, sitting there on the sofa, wanting to be out there. Where was the desire? Where was the fighting spirit and determination you need to succeed at the highest level against one of the best teams in Europe?

There are big problems at Arsenal and that result and performance could be the end for Arsene Wenger. They are out of the Premier League and Champions League, he can't win at Sutton tomorrow night, no matter what the result. They have to win the FA Cup, but even that might not be enough to save him.

Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal's best player but also their worst enemy. They cannot function as a team while he continues to throw a strop every time he doesn't get the ball.

You can tell a lot about a team's togetherness, and how they feel about a particular player, in the celebration after he scores a goal. If they love him, they're all over him.

When Sanchez scored on Wednesday night, no player gave him more than a pat on the back or handshake. And this was the equaliser, early in the game. It looked like a last-minute consolation goal to make the embarrassing 5-1 final score.

Arsenal were horrendous. Bayern Munich played well, their performance was efficient and positive, but Arsenal just downed tools. That is as bad as I have seen them play.

Sanchez is clearly frustrated, but there is a time and place to show that frustration and the rest of the Arsenal players are clearly sick of his surly antics.

It reminds me of the manager who rants and raves all the time. By the time it gets to his third or fourth one, you stop listening, switch off and eventually turn against him. Sanchez is suffering the same fate.

Yes, he does work hard and the level of commitment he has shown since he joined Arsenal has not dimmed during this strange period for him and his club. At least he looks like he cares - unlike Mesut Ozil, who has really thrown the dummy out and whose body language is appalling.

Team spirit - it means so much at this time of the season in particular. If you are fighting for your lives, or chasing titles or promotion, it's not always a given and sometimes you need a lift, especially when you're up against it.

That's why the mid-season break can give teams a massive lift and bring players closer together for the final few months of the season.

Supporters don't like these trips abroad because they view them as a reward for failure. But it's the struggling clubs who attract all the attention. If you're mid-table and head off to Dubai this week, no one notices.

There's always the danger, if alcohol is introduced, that there will be obstacles to complete harmony within the team. A few home truths in drink don't go down well with everyone.

But that's rare. When you get time away from football, your family, the club, the fans, you can just relax and enjoy the craic and the banter. There is work to be done, but you can just enjoy the fun a little bit more, knowing it's being sanctioned and has a purpose.

Sunderland's trip to New York will have been a very useful exercise in team bonding for David Moyes and his side and much more beneficial than a few games of five-a-side in the freezing cold in Wearside.

That's why I was surprised Sam Allardyce cancelled Crystal Palace's proposed trip to Dubai after another defeat last weekend. Having called them into training at seven o'clock on Sunday morning the previous week, Big Sam is not going out of his way to win friends among his squad.

He has never been relegated before, so he knows what he is doing, but I would have thought a manager with his forward-thinking ideas would see the benefits of a break away from London and all its additional pressures.

This time of year also brings the start of the hurling season, and I think this is the first time I have taken notice of the first set of games.

Of course, we all live in hope, but the level of performances last season have brought even bigger hopes to Waterford. With that comes additional pressure for the players. It looks like we can handle it, and if we can beat Kilkenny, well . . .

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