CJ Stander has never shied away from the dirty work. Picture the Munster back row in action and it’s highly likely the image will involve a freeze frame of him with ball tucked under an armpit and ducking his head into contact for the umpteenth time.
On Saturday, though, he went above and beyond the call of duty at the Aviva, shortly after being joined on the Lansdowne Road turf by his wife Jean-Marie and daughter Everli who was born only last month.
“Yeah, it was a great moment,” said the 29-year old. “I just changed her nappy there as well. It’s been a big change over the past few weeks. I was very emotional before the game as well. It was good to have her there. It’s something I never thought was going to happen.”
When dad comes to tell Everli about the time she went to his first game he will be able to add the rider that he marked it by playing pretty well.
The switch from No.8 to the blindside may well be the key to rebooting an Ireland career that, like too many of his carries lately, had hit a wall.
Stander’s versatility across the back row is a useful tool approaching a tournament where only 31 players can travel but he was well aware of the “bit of a lashing” he had received from some outside the team bubble prior to this last World Cup warm-up. Not that it seems to have bothered him.
“Not really. I have had a good bit of it over the last few years,” he shrugged. “It’s tough sometimes when the conversations get moved onto the family. But stuff like that doesn’t really get into me.
“I just want to play the game and make sure that I put my hand up for the players around me and be sure I’m good in that jersey so I get selected. It is a strong point in my game. It’s something I had to work on and keep on working because (if) you settle, it’s just going to stagnate and get you in trouble.”
Criticism and other comment is par for the course when you swing a club or carry a ball for Ireland but Stander was taken by the no-fuss manner with which Jean Kleyn went about his business this last week while the outside world discussed the rights and wrongs of his selection ahead of Devin Toner.
There was the now ubiquitous claim that all that external noise — a Joe Schmidt phrase, that— doesn’t really penetrate the cordon that separates this squad from the rest of us but Stander couldn’t help but acknowledge that such talk can make for tough times.
“There are a lot of positives but the thing about it is, you (can) always look at the negative ones. It’s just one or two. Jean works hard. It’s the same thing with Bundee (Aki): just make sure you keep your head down, work hard, perform for the jersey and show it means something to you. It means a lot to Bundee and Jean to be in that green jersey.” It’s been a rocky road through pre-season to this point for an Irish team that fell to such a painful defeat to England in Twickenham though the energy that powered through the 23 two days ago was obvious as they prepare to leave dear old Dublin.
That said, no-one believes that they are on their A-game yet. Not even the tag of world No.1 that hangs around the squad’s neck now can hide the need for further improvement as they make for the Pool A opener against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday week.
Stander didn’t actually realise such a summit had been scaled until informed by members of the media on Saturday evening, but his reaction summed up the collective sense that it will matter little when the final is being decided in eight weeks’ time.
“Those things (rankings), I don’t know how they work. They just go up and down, up and down. I don’t know who does it, probably a computer somewhere, but we worked hard (to get there). We’ve been playing well over the last few years.
“We have been disappointed in the last few games this year but we worked hard.
“We’re just happy with the performance we had [on Saturday] and if some algorithm means we’re going to drop down again before the thing starts...we don’t look at that. We just focus on what we can do and what we can improve on.”
The dirty work? Only starting.