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Liam Toland: Irupa award a great tribute to CJ Stander

Outstanding personal season for Munster and Ireland recognised by his fellow players

Irupa Hall of Fame winner Ronan O’Gara and his wife Jessica with the Zurich Irupa Players’ Player of the Year CJ Stander at the awards dinner in the Hilton by Double Tree, Ballsbridge. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

So Joe Marler is seeing a sport psychologist. That’s understandable considering the journey he’s been on recently but I do recall playing Ulster in Ravenhill many years ago when we packed down for a scrum on the centre spot of the pitch – the farthest from any supporter’s ear. And just as we were feeding in the ball all hell broke loose between our tighthead and Ulster’s loosehead. As I was packing down behind our tighthead I was right there and was ready to launch in some direction.

The referee being on the far side had to run around the Ulster pack to get to where the aggro was developing. By the time he got around, our tighthead pointed his big right arm at his opponent and announced at the top of his voice “sectarian comments, sectarian comments” to which the dumbfounded Ulster man retorted, “I didn’t say a thing”. Knowing the Ulster prop as we did and that he was amongst other things a collector of rabbits, he was absolutely telling the truth. But knowing the Leinster tighthead’s penchant for comedy as we all did, including the referee, we all giggled uncontrollably out there in the middle of the pitch before completely to get on with the game. I never asked afterwards what the Ravenhill faithful made of 19 grown men laughing in the middle of a serious match.

Too seriously

I suppose my point is sports psychology feedback has a crucial role for the individual, and the team, but taking yourself all too seriously can at times get you into deeper water. As very few players in any sports negotiate their journey without being selected and subsequently dropped (painfully).

On Wednesday Ronan O’Gara, one of the greatest players of our generation, was inducted into the Irupa Hall of Fame. He too was dropped on occasions. It seems the only true feedback a player can get is selection or non-selection, which even our greatest, Brian O’Drisccoll, experienced on Warren Gatland’s Lions odyssey.

However on one occasion I experienced the purest of feedback.

Our Leinster coach announced one day that we were going to do an exercise. Under his arm he had 30-plus blue A4 sheets. We sat there perplexed as he spread them out around the team room. On each he had a name on the top right of the page. Beyond that the page was divided in two: the upper half “areas of strengths” with the bottom half “areas to improve”. His instruction was for us to stroll around the room and fill in the gaps as felt appropriate.

As you can imagine the group were tentative and it took some time before the first pen hit a page. But then the room began to buzz with all players engaged in the simple process of randomly filling in the page. Crucially the comments were anonymous.

As I walked around the room jotting notes into players on both ends of the pages I was amazed at how each sheet – regardless of player – was being filled. Looking back, players in that room went on to win Lions Tests, Grand Slams, Championships, Triple Crowns, European Cups and Pro12s – yet their peers were able to fill in strengths and weaknesses.

Nervously I approached my blue sheet. I wondered would anyone even take the time to give me feedback. Thankfully the sheet was filled in! And there were equal comments in the top and bottom half. The comments I’ll keep to myself but I will admit it is amongst the most prized item I have from a 25-year journey that took me all over the world.

Although the exercise took about 30 minutes the comments on the page were not knee-jerk. There was true meaning detailed there, especially in the bottom section entitled “areas to improve”.

Ironically I trusted and valued that blue sheet over anything a coach would say to me. No matter what, the coach is compromised in balancing the many complications of keeping the team going forward.

I wonder if Joe Marler placed a blue A4 sheet in the Harlequins and England team room what he might he learn from his peers? Indeed I wonder if along with the cyclical fitness test, body fat test etc the blue sheet was added how much more beneficial it would be to the player/team.

CJ Stander has had an outstanding season for both province and country and this fact was duly recognised at the Irupa awards on Wednesday. The first award was a wonderful nod from the Irish public in winning the Irish Times Supporters’ Player of the Year. How a man here but a wet week has captured the entire public is a wonderful testament to his selfless approach to our game.

But that his peers followed suit is the truest feedback for the man. Stander has the honour of being the Zurich Irupa Players’ Player of the Year. What value is this for the man? Well when he walks back into the Munster dressing room or more specifically the Ireland dressing room he does so in the knowledge that the players sitting with him accept him as the best. That’s quality feedback! PS That same tighthead was the same man who scored a try against New Zealand in the 1995 rugby World Cup; can you remember what happened next?