CJ Stander’s Ireland career ended with his shoulder to the wheel. Arched over a breakdown. Holding firm.
The tears flooded when everyone lined up to embrace the burly Munster man with a South African lilt. Not tall enough for the Springboks, that twist of faith guided a farmer’s son to Limerick where he forced all comers to put some respect on his name.
Fifty-one times. The only shame is it cannot be 60 or 70 caps, but Stander leaves a legacy, with all the spectacular Irish wins in the modern era listed on his jacket. Think about Soldier Field, Chicago and CJ appears with a grit that made goliaths like Kieran Read check their stride. He became a peer to the best 8-men in the game.
Jack Conan did everything in his considerable power to spoil this tribute. Stander’s last international in Dublin saw him revert to the more industrious blindside flank as Conan sprung from obscurity to salvage Ireland’s worryingly uncertain campaign.
If anyone should feel robbed of Irish caps during Stander’s unbreakable five seasons in green, it would be Conan. The Bray backrow has seen the promise of residency in the national side stymied by injuries. But mostly by CJ.
Caelan Doris passed them both before concussion slowed the Blackrock prodigy’s rise. Stander was expected to fill the gap until Ireland coach Andy Farrell appeared to spin the bottle with Conan returning to the team. But the Irish coaches earned their coin with structured attacks straight off the Blanchardstown training paddock leaving England reeling as Conan’s delicate fingertips and clever dive helped construct a 20-6 interval lead.
“Imagine that score running off at half-time, this place would have erupted” said Stander, choking up. “I just wish my family could be here, especially my wife and daughter.”
The Keith Earls try was everything people tracking the 33-year-old flyer’s storied career had been hoping to see, once again. It was a twist on the over the top lineout throw that allowed France to shred the English defence last week at Twickenham. This time Rob Herring found a soaring Conan, whose fadeaway jump shot in NBA parlance, did what the Mike Catt offence had failed to do until that moment: unleash Earls in open country. Jonny May - who could have sprinted professionally - was stuck in the mud by the winger’s tip toe finish.
Owen Farrell responded with a long range penalty but from the restart Tadhg Beirne wrapped up Maro Itoje in a reversal of the usual torture. With Johnny Sexton’s boot like an assassin’s blade, Hugo Keenan catching lobs like a baseball pro and Robbie Henshaw puncturing the silence with the performance of his lifetime, CJ was plain old ultra-aggressive CJ; hurting people and smiling when they attempted to hurt him back.
England were anything but themselves, although this increases the growing narrative of a split personality under Eddie Jones. Mako Vunipola had to be Sheppard-hooked at the break, and not down to Tadhg Furlong’s dominance, but Mathieu Raynal’s consistent interpretation of a loosehead illegally boring in the scrum.
Ireland led 13-6 when Stander sprang to life with a carry into Tom Curry - the English openside obliterated him - before a rumble into Billy Vunipola - again, slammed to ground - and he even gathered a Furlong offload only to be hammered onto the grass for a third time in 90 seconds.
CJ smirked as the pain could only be electrifying his block of cement frame. All this punishment laid a foundation for The Catt Offensive to produce enough running to fracture England long enough for Conan to sneak over the whitewash.
As expected, straight after half-time, the kitchen sink was flung at Ireland. For all the xenophobia swirling around Stander’s introduction and continued selection for Ireland, nobody who has ever worn a green jersey would live to tell the tale of a full frontal collision with Billy Vunipola, Curry and Ellis Genge.
CJ laughed his head off. Then he collared Elliot Daly on the outside. He also bumped Mark Wilson before an unforgettable moment when combining with Beirne to snaffle the ball off an English pack which bested their smaller Irish counterparts on four bruising occasions since February 2019.
Something stirred in the Ireland team on this Saturday afternoon. All the while Owen Farrell’s captaincy continued its downward spiral. The Wooden Crown belongs to England for 2021. Farrell’s inability to strike a workable relationship with Raynal reached its zenith when the neutral doctor insisted that he depart for a Head Injury Assessment. Farrell claimed a stinger. He did not return.
This type of scalping, from an Irish team pumped and calm in equal measure, forcing the English juggernaut down corridors that trapped their oversized bodies, happens every half decade or so. Rachael Blackmore’s Cheltenham superiority should have been a warning or that cracking yarn in The Daily Telegraph about Max Malins’ family ties to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but you never really see this coming.
Such rare days cannot happen without a coaching ticket providing a clear strategy that links into an intensity that can only be created by the sight of the red rose. Unless you are CJ Stander, and this energy flow is how you have lived a fascinating life for a boy from a dairy and vegetable farm on the Western Cape, who hoped to become a Springbok but ended up being the most beloved foreigner to grace Thomond Park.
“He is the most kind-hearted genuine bloke you are ever likely to meet,” said Andy Farrell. “He has given his heart and soul to the jersey, the green one and the red one. He has the chance to play in a cup final for Munster next week.”
There’s a few more weeks in this short goodbye with Stander fully aware that Gavin Coombes needs a platform to do to Leinster what Conan just did to England.
The post-Stander era in Irish rugby will see everyone doing just fine without him but that is down to the standard set by his guaranteed ferocity. Coombes, Doris and Conan know exactly what’s expected when they wear number eight.
“I am forever grateful,” said Stander, his voice cracking. “Dreams do come through.”