CJ Stander: We have options to deal with backrow injuries
Number eight cites the performance of Dan Leavy off the bench at Stade de France
CJ Stander on the charge for Ireland against France’s Anthony Belleau at Stade de France last Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Lunchtime and CJ Stander is shaking every hand in the Irish press conference, 20 or more. Within seconds of coming into the long, creaking salon at Carton House overlooking the rolling O’Meara course, the Irish number eight already holds the room.
Stander’s formality is a humble kind, a great bucket of hand, sweeping JCB arms and a look in the eye. Everyone gets their nanosecond of attention.
The number eight, though, is becoming one of the last backrows standing as injury continues to take bites out Joe Schmidt’s options in the pack.
The three positions at the back of the scrum, not so long ago could have been filled almost three times over. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and now Josh van der Flier, have all had rotten luck, van der Flier’s knee ligament damage ensuring Stade de France was his last chance of rugby this season.
Stander, ever the diplomat and oxymoron specialist, sees van der Flier as a great loss to the team but his unavailability leaving no real dent in the armoury of Schmidt’s backrow.
His sense of security comes from Dan Leavy’s performance when he came on in Paris. Leavy, a 23-year-old who suffers few crises of confidence, seems to hold the cards for Italy as the flanker squad thins.
“Oh no,” says Stander disagreeing that options are critically shrinking. “I always used to say that if you play on the wing, if you’re big enough they’ll just push you into the backrow.
“Even with locks and props, you are a bit shorter maybe, they can push into the backrow so there’s a lot of boys there who can put up their hands and pick up the jersey and perform.
“It’s a place where there’s always a lot of talent, so no, I think there are a lot of players in that position that can pick up.”
Jack Conan may also be getting shifty in his training bib. Conan is a number eight that can slot into blindside flanker. Ask him and he’ll tell you he’s an eight first but who is he to ever limit his options.
But it’s Leavy with his handling skills and selfless physicality at the breakdown area who would be the snug fit in the absence of van der Flier.
“I thought Josh was playing an exceptional game. He started well, he has a lot of energy and made a lot of tackles,” says Stander.
“Unfortunately he went off with his knee. But I think Dan came in and just took over from Josh and made a few big hits and big carries, and he put his hand up for sure.”
Leavy came into the match preset to the level the game was being contested. There was no playing his way in, feeling the tempo. He hit the pitch with intentions to impress. Tough and uncompromising at the breakdown and with the edge that has gotten him this far, his smile at the end was as much personal as team euphoria.
Leavy takes on all comers all the time. After the match said he had been “dying for an opportunity”. He has also had enough injuries of his own in the recent past to get over the disappointment for van der Flier. It was a step in that would have had Schmidt humming with satisfaction up on his perch.
“I think he [Dan] is another player that’s driven and he has a tough way that he plays, he knows what he wants in the game and what he has to go out and do,” says Stander.
“He’s physical, he’s very strong – very strong over the ball – and I think he’s one of those backrows that can fit in anywhere and do any job.
“Sometimes it’s tough to come into a game but he just fit in and helped change the game.
“He’s quick, he brings a lot of energy and is someone great to have alongside you, and also to push you in the jersey. Yeah, I think he had an exceptional game coming on and he fit in like a glove.”
It was Stander who notched up a weekend-topping 24 carries across all of the Six Nations games. The last of those was into the French blockade in their half that Peter O’Mahony cleared out and Conor Murray stepped in to deliver back to Sexton.
A video analysis session awaits in the afternoon. Off goes Stander, squeezing more hands as he leaves.