CJ Stander turns his mind to definitive Twickenham test

South African excited by the prospect of bidding for a Grand Slam against England

CJ Stander claims a lineout ball against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.  Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

CJ Stander claims a lineout ball against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Young Rory Best was on the bench. Master Rob Kearney was at fullback. Some of this Irish team were doing Junior Cert, togging out for the club U-16s the last time Ireland won a Grand Slam.

For all but two the week ahead is a fresh experience culminating in the visit to Twickenham. For Joe Schmidt too. New tensions, new expectations, new energy facing a bitten England team now playing for pride after losing to France. Already Scotland is forgotten.

CJ Stander was in South Africa when Ronan O’Gara dropped his late goal, an 18-year-old who knew he was going to be a rugby player with Blue Bulls and not farm his parents’ land.

Six Nations and Grand Slam matches were then as familiar to Stander as Craven Week at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool would have been to Keith Earls. The world turns.

“Yeah I have spoken to players and heard it from ex-players the players that played in ’09 and got it,” says the ever-approachable Irish number eight.

“This group we haven’t had the opportunity. We can surely look back at how they went into it and what it meant for them afterwards. It has set up a job for us to do next week and now we have to go and do it.

“Now we got the big one. So we have to rest up and train well so that we can get to the weekend and perform there. It is going to be a tough physical battle. I think the way they play they get their forwards in the game in the back line, control the game. It’s something we need to stop.”

No one needs to be reminded how Ireland rained on England’s Grand Slam parade last year. But revenge is energy-sapping. Each match is a self-contained process, a championship in itself.

Scottish captain Greig Laidlaw foresees a war. But he knows the English, refuses point blank to call it either way.

“It’s a cup final sort of game, of course it is,” says Laidlaw. “England have their strong home record haven’t they. Ireland turned them over in the reverse game last season so it will be ...both teams are playing well. Similar defence and similar style in essence. It should be a fitting end to the tournament.”

England have not lost at Twickenham since being beaten by Australia in the World Cup in October 2015. But Ireland also have something they hold dearly, an 11-match winning streak.

“Again we said as a group we want to achieve something,” says Stander. “That something was probably in the back of the mind. We played well and won our last few games. Got lucky as well in a few games. It’s a great achievement for this group and hopefully we can push on.”

Small errors

Still a major concern and possibly unresolved is the wide Irish defence, which was patched up during the week. Three botched chances Scotland left on the field made the scoreline more pleasing to the Irish eye.

There was also an unsaid, underlying belief in the measured tone of Scottish coach Gregor Townsend and captain John Barclay that Scotland knew they were much better than 28-8.

“There was a lot of talk in camp about what we can do,” says Stander. “Andy Farrell gives us all the tools during the week and we just need to go out there and perform for him.

“He is a very passionate man, so I think it was just small errors by a few individuals in the last game that gave them tries. We want to go out there and show that we can defend the way we want to, defend for the team and for him and make sure we get in front of them and deny them those tries.”

Townsend also made the distinction between winning four matches and winning five for a Grand Slam. It is not, he suggested, as easy as just one more game. The five come with more freight, more pressure.

“It has been a long campaign,” says Stander without sounding the least bit weary. “You know...you make sure you know what you are doing on the pitch and make sure you know what you stand for and what you are playing for.

“We get a chance to rest and when we are off ... and when we get there we are fixed on.”

No fuss then. Just as Schmidt would like it.

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