Project cases with points to prove
RUGBY:More than the results will be of interest in the Pro 12 matches at Thomond Park and the RDS tomorrow as Irish rugby presents a glimpse of the revised thinking on nationality.
With CJ Stander making his first start for Munster against Glasgow and Zebre’s Cork-born tighthead prop David Ryan earning his second consecutive start for the Italian side against Leinster, Munster coach Rob Penney will get a look at the backrower bought in from South Africa and in Ryan what the province may have missed two seasons ago.
Leinster have not yet selected but not to be out done coach Joe Schmidt will probably see tighthead prop Michael Bent for the first time in a Leinster frontrow after his forays from an Irish bench in the recent international matches against South Africa and Argentina.
Two of the three – Stander, and Ryan – have become part of the increasingly popular “project players”, Stander for Ireland and Ryan for Italy. New Zealand-born 26-year-old Bent is Irish qualified through his maternal grandmother. Having left Munster at the end of the 2010-11 season, taken up initially by Lazio and then Zebre, Ryan was offered a place on the USA squad for their Test matches in June as his mother is American.
But the Munster man opted for a career with Zebre, when a contract came up. Providence then intervened and spotted by the Italian coaches, he is now a season into his three-year residential stint after which he will be eligible to play for Italy.
It is exactly the same procedure that Stander has employed with Ireland and that allowed South African-born Richardt Strauss to qualify as an Irish hooker. “I sat down with my parents in South Africa and talked about what qualified me as a Springbok and what qualifies me as an Irish player,” says Stander. “If I play three years here I will get my Irish colours hopefully and qualify as an Irish player.”
More focus will fall on Stander, who started with the South African Under-20 team as a number eight. With his club side Blue Bulls he played at six and seven but he starts his first match with Munster this weekend as a blindside forward.
He arrived at the end of last month and has spent the intervening weeks bedding into the Munster regime. Although he can play across the backrow, James Coughlan, who has recently returned from a long stretch out due to injury, has fitted the number eight position snugly and it would seem the pragmatic decision to keep him there.
Stander has some sympathy for the Irish players who lose out, but having made a boldly calculating decision to leave South Africa he won’t be getting queasy now over his main objective, which is to follow Strauss into an Irish shirt.
“I think it is a bit tough for the local guys,” he says. “I think it’s bad from their perspective, but for me it is great. It’s great that another country can recognise potential and bring a player like me in.”
Standing 1.88 metres (6ft 2ins) and 108kg (17st), one of the reasons he decided to move to Ireland was that in South Africa he was regarded as not being big enough for the backrow. “Back home they say I’m too small, so for me to prove someone wrong, that I can play to that level and be picked at that level was one of the reasons, not just a change of scenery but to play international rugby too.”
The media attention surrounding the Irish debuts of Strauss and Bent is also likely to make his path less jarring if he eventually gets selected for Ireland. “It’s better for me not to be the first guy to do it, better that someone already did it, see what they went through, what happened to them, how they get to be playing,” he said.
He is not the only one with a three-year plan as his fiancée, Jean Marie Neethling, is a South African swimmer with ambitions of making it to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She has joined him in Limerick as they settle into life in Ireland.