Joe Schmidt: Wales the true test for CJ Stander

Joe Schmidt: Wales the true test for CJ Stander
CJ Stander pictured at training today.

Brendan O’Brien

Joe Schmidt has sung the praises of CJ Stander ahead of the player’s first Ireland cap while warning that the weekend’s Six Nations outing against Wales in Dublin will be the true test of the Munster captain’s abilities.

As it is for everyone's.

Stander has been superb for Munster this season, despite the province’s struggles, as he builds on a reputation that stretches back to a short but impressive Super Rugby stint with the Bulls and his experiences of captaining the Baby Boks to third place in the 2010 U20s World Cup.

Add that to 17 Munster appearances in the European Cup and he is no mere babe at 25 years of age so the theory is that this is not a case of some callow youth stepping in to the big time.

Yet Schmidt knows there are no guarantees.

“It is difficult to say,” said the Kiwi coach on Friday afternoon after naming Stander at blindside flanker in his team for the weekend’s appointment with Warren Gatland’s impressive and physically daunting Welsh side.

“I know he has had really positive age-grade success but there is nothing like the senior Test match arena to find out how someone acquits themselves. There is no better place than a Six Nations against a very settled and experienced side who play in a very settled manner.”

Stander starts alongside clubmate Tommy O’Donnell in the back row, the Tipperary man benefiting from the late withdrawal of Sean O’Brien due to a hamstring injury. The pair will have the more familiar visage of Jamie Heaslip alongside in the back row.

O’Brien is expected to be fit for next week’s trip to France. Or so the Ireland camp says anyway.

“He would be just on the edge of being able to play,” Schmidt explained “We would have no concerns for next week. If the same thing happened that happened against Italy last year where he pulled out at the very last minute and it was quite unsettling.

“Tommy O’Donnell came in and did a great job in that match but we just said we would give ourselves some certainty and give Sean the opportunity to train fully next week. Hopefully there is still a fair bit to play for at that stage.”

The same applies to Rob Kearney apparently. The Leinster full-back has not been risked this week due to another hamstring injury but the official line is that he should be ready to resume training by Tuesday at the earliest and Thursday at latest.

That has opened the way for Simon Zebo to start at 15.

“Simon has played (full-back) for us before, as recently as Italy in the World Cup and he played it against England before that,” said Schmidt.

“He is a guy who has got all the skills to play at the back. We expect they will kick on us a fair bit and he is very good in the air and he has a very good left boot.

"There are a couple of things that he has that are very similar to Rob Kearney.”

Sunday represents a tall order for Ireland given they had already been planning without the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Iain Henderson – as well as the retired Paul O’Connell - before O’Brien and Rob Kearney were lost to consideration.

“It doesn’t help.” Schmidt admitted.

With so much change enforced by injury and retirement, the head coach has unsurprisingly retained familiar pairings at midfield, where Jared Payne partners Robbie Henshaw, and at half-back, where Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray renew their long-time collaboration.

Nathan White leaps to the start of the queue at tighthead as a result of the absences of Mike Ross and Marty Moore. Captain Rory Best starts at hooker and Jack McGrath competes the back row. Mike McCarthy partners Devin Toner in the second row.

There is no place for Ulster's in-form centre Stuart McCloskey on the bench, while Connacht’s Kieran Marmion has been promoted to the replacements list ahead of veteran Eoin Reddan. Interesting calls and Schmidt admits all are open to question.

“I’m not sure we get them right. In fact I know that you are not always going to get them right because there are variables and human factors and it is impossible to get every one right.

“What we try to do is take as balanced an approach as we can, take all those variables into account and try to come up with what we think is the individual and the combination that we need.”

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