CJ Stander’s sights swivel from title celebrations to Slam dunk
South African-born forward expects England backlash after their defeats to Scotland and France
Ireland’s CJ Stander celebrates with wife Jean-Marie after victory over Scotland in the Six Nations Championship match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
It’s no wonder Joe Schmidt rated the 2014 Six Nations title triumph the pick of the three in the last five years, coming as it did by dint of their own achievements on the pitch in the Stade de France. Even the dramatic events of Super Saturday a year later prompted a return to a darkened Murrayfield for a joyous celebration. But last Saturday was, understandably, the most subdued.
In large part this was because it was not the final Saturday which, the squad knew full well, would also offer the bigger prize of a Grand Slam regardless of England coming up short in Paris. So it was that Johnny Sexton spoke of the muted celebrations at the post-match reception at the Aviva Stadium, even if some, such as CJ Stander, had to suppress their feelings.
“We had dinner. We as players and partners were sitting on one side, and everyone else was celebrating,” recalled Stander at the squad’s Carton House base yesterday. “We didn’t really celebrate because we knew we had another job at hand. To win a championship with a game in hand is a great achievement and I will never take that away. I’ve never had it; it’s my first senior win ever in my life.
“I felt inside I wanted to flip the table and dance on it. But I knew we had another game to go and it’s something that comes every 40 years, so it’s something special,” said Stander, in reference to the gap between the previous two Irish Grand Slams which was actually 61 years. “We need to make sure that we keep it inside. If you can get this right, then the celebrations on Sunday are going to be great.”
The speeches had finished and the players were still eating their dinner as events in the Stade de France concluded. “We were having Beef Wellington, and they were still playing. Then they just finished up, and we just looked at each other. I remember I was sitting next to Murray, Earlsy, Garry (Ringrose) was there, and all of our partners. We had a glass of wine and said congratulations, and then you’re back into this week. There’s a lot to think about and work on.
“Luckily the speeches had finished and it was a big screen. Everyone was celebrating and enjoying it. Even some of the Scotland players had a few cheers. It was special. To get a Championship, to win it, is great, but I don’t want to take away from this week. It’s big for us.”
Following last Saturday’s triumph, Stander spoke of the sacrifices made in upping sticks from South Africa, and in the process “losing friends” with ex-teammates and coaches. But in becoming an ever-present in three successive Six Nations campaigns since making his debut in the 16-all draw at home to Wales in the 2016 opener, so his focus shifted.
“It was one of my main goals, I tell you that,” he admitted of winning the title. “I’ve been in a lot of finals, a lot of semi-finals, a lot of groups that got there and didn’t have it. Last year against Scarlets, last year against Saracens, it’s tough. Glasgow four years ago up in Cardiff was tough on a provincial level.
“As a new guy in my first two years, you just try to play well and fill in, and then you get to a point where you feel you can give something back to the group and back to the other players. You want to start winning things because you know that people talk that way, train that way. To win something, I didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. But again we’ve got a week to go still. It was good, that five minutes I had with my wife (Jean Marie) to celebrate it. It’s still unreal.”
Pressure to perform
Stander admits there’s pressure to perform on the Irish team this week, but points out that there was pressure in the last two games as well. Anticipating a highly physical game, having lost there two years ago, he also appreciates full well the threat England provide on Saturday after touring with them in New Zealand as part of the Lions.
“I trained a lot with them. When they get on the field, they switch on. They’re physical. Mako [Vunipolah] as hands, Maro [Itoje] is one of the most powerful I’ve played against and played with. Dan Cole, another guy who works hard and loves his scrumming. Owen Farrell runs the whole thing.”
He also expects a backlash after their defeats to Scotland and France. “They’ll be angry with themselves for sure at how they left it out there. It’s going to be 23 angry Englishmen for sure.”
Furthermore, he knows those post-match celebrations of last Saturday could again be a tad anti-climactic next weekend.
“We don’t want to wake up on Sunday being happy, but sad as well,” he said at the prospect of being champions without having a Slam. “We’ve got an opportunity and we want to take it, but we know it’s not going to be easy. We know that the players in this group won’t have this opportunity again. There are a lot of guys outside the group as well that started well, and we want to give something back to them and give something back to the coaches as well.”