Every sport has its standout figures. Those who, to someone with no interest in or knowledge on a given discipline will still be recognisable. Think Tiger Woods in golf, Phil Taylor in times past relating to darts or Lewis Hamilton on the Formula 1 grid. Turn attention to rugby and ‘BOD’ and ‘Paulie’ and ‘ROG’ have adorned similar status over the last couple of decades.
C.J. has earned rank among them. Stander, that is. Now, the letters ‘CJ’ have always commanded special reverence in this seat. They have been in two very special instances referring to giants among men. Leaders, doers, those whom others look up to and follow.
One such instance is not about to be mentioned here, for fear a few snowflakes might melt, but, on the occasion of the announcement of the impending retirement of Christian Johann Stander from rugby in all its forms must be marked.
It is surely the case that I am not alone in being totally caught off guard by the South African Limerick man’s decision to call time on a remarkable playing career. One made all the more noteworthy by the fact that he was considered not of sufficient stature in his homeland to fill the No. 8 jersey in which he would go on to become the dominant force in Europe with both Munster and Ireland for the guts of a decade.
When the Springbok first donned the red of Munster nine years ago, it was, rightly, hailed as quite the acquisition. Particularly at a time when – in all honesty – those down Shannonside wouldn’t have been the most attractive proposition going.
However, he has led from the front in making the province not only attractive but also enabling them to regain their renowned competitive streak and thus put them in line for silverware once again. Naturally, part of you is hoping they do in fact give him the best send-off possible.
On the other hand, though, there’s a feeling of deep sadness at seeing the big man depart not only the national side but also the red of Munster. Not only because of the inclination that he still had plenty to offer as a player, but, also, due to the hope that he might have stayed on in a coaching capacity.
Alas, that now won’t happen , but, the man who ran a suckler beef herd in Kilmallock owes nobody anything. In fact, Irish rugby owes the back row forward a lot more than could ever be repaid. Even though there were those who decried his selection for the national team. Their point regarding him being picked doing an home bred player out of a spot, to be fair, is hard to disagree with. But at the time Stander was added to the Irish setup he was, by some distance, the standout candidate for the position following the retirements of the late Anthony Foley and Jamie Heaslip.
Stander’s impending departure could be seen as either challenge or opportunity. As is oft the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. His departure obviously leaves quite the vacuum to be filled, in both green and red, but it equally presents an opportunity for somebody to assume the role of leader of the pack.
At this point in time, whenever he makes it back from injury, Leinster’s Caelen Dorris must be considered to be in poll position to take over from the departing hero in the Irish back row. The Mayo native has been a revelation since breaking into the Leinster setup and equally caught the eye when afforded his opportunity in the green jersey.
The Leinster player has, unfortunately, missed an amount of rugby having encountered complications following a HIA incident several months ago now. Dorris, when he hopefully returns, is entitled to stake his claim. Paul Boyle of Connacht, mind you, also merits a chance to perform at the highest level. Whoever ends up in the No. 8 shirt will have some rather large boots to fill.
Whatever about that being the case with Ireland, his loss will leave a gaping chasm in Munster which will require unquantifiable filling. Obviously, most basically from a playing perspective. His departure was bound to be a bombshell whenever it materialised but right now the timing is catastrophic for the province.
For the first time in way too long, the Thomond Park troops are showing genuine signs of meaningful progress being afoot. Having qualified for a shot at their first silverware in a decade, there is cause for the Peter O’Mahony captained team to go into a clash against their great rivals from Leinster with genuine hope.
Much of that can undoubtedly be traced to the visible influence of Stephen Larkham on their attacking play. Keeping ball in hand rather than what had become the profligate bore of continually box kicking the ball back to the opposition. Joe Schmidt did an incredible amount of good for Leinster and Irish rugby, but, the manner in which he indoctrinated those in the pivotal positions on the team – particularly the half backs – to rely almost exclusively on a kicking game has diminished the efficiency of not only the players concerned but also the entire team.
As is always the case in these situations, whatever about the Irish team, the obvious regression in Conor Murray’s productivity since he was afflicted by a serious neck injury, the effect it has had on Munster has been far more profound. However, in another case of the law of unintended consequences, the blossoming of Craig Casey has dovetailed beautifully with the incremental progress germinated via Larkham’s inculcation of a more expansive brand of rugby.
Thus it must be concluded that said style alteration has been pivotal in their ascending to a position where they have realistic aspirations of usurping their great rivals for the first time in a very long time. Temptation above was to refer to it as a policy switch but the reality is that what it has represented has been a return to the tried and trusted Munster methodology.
That is to say, keeping the ball in hand and rumbling through God knows how many phases of pick-and-drive. Actually, rumble isn’t strictly accurate because one thing that has been very noticeable under the Australian’s tactical direction has been a marked increase in the tempo of the Munster attack. Something facilitated by performances of the front eight. Most notably the also sadly soon retiring Billy Holland and CJ.
That said, you know the old story about the big man up top not closing one door without opening another. So, although huge blows in there own right, the departures of the two great servants present windows of opportunity for others to stand up, stake their claim and build on the momentum already generated.
To that end, in varying degrees, Fineen Wychereley and Jack O’Donoghue – who captains the side tonight in the final round of the regulation PRO14, The best statement of all would be to give the two departing heroes they send-off they deserve.