It was not just the pre-game tribute to Anthony Foley that inspired Ireland to victory over the All Blacks.
For CJ Stander, memories of the late Munster head coach were with the flanker throughout a jaw-droppingly dramatic Test match in Chicago.
Three weeks on from Foley’s sudden death related to a heart condition at the age of 42, there was another day of remarkable emotion for Irish rugby, as the memory of a fallen hero received a further, wonderful tribute at Soldier Field.
As New Zealand performed their traditional Haka before the game to the delight of the 62,300 sell-out crowd in the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, Ireland channelled some spirituality of their own as the matchday squad formed a figured of eight in opposition to the All Blacks, a poignant mark of respect to former Munster and Ireland No. 8 Foley.
Ireland’s Munster contingent of Stander, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray formed the front edge of the numeral as they faced the All Blacks’ ritual.
“We made an eight, a figure of eight. We made a decision about that during the week. For me personally and Murray and all the Munster boys standing there it was big,” Stander said.
“Same as the Glasgow match (a week after Foley’s death) we wanted to give something back to him and the family.
“He meant a lot to me and was really the rock in my rugby in the last four years. He showed me what he learned over the years. He pushed me to the next level. I just think of what man he was, the legend he was. What he gave to me as a rugby player.
“In that 60th minute when I got tired, I was just thinking: ‘Why am I playing this match? Who got me there?’ Everything he gave to me. That was massive for me.”
All four Munster men would play an integral part of the epic 40-29 victory on Saturday night.
Ryan put in an immense shift as part of a tight five who carried the game to the world champions and contributed to an excellent set-piece while the other three crowned their best performances to date in an Ireland jersey with tries, Stander’s first-half score a personal victory in a titanic battle of wills as he won his collision with Jerome Kaino to power over the line.
It was a big statement from the naturalised Irishman, who had left his native South Africa for Munster having been told he was too small to be a Springbok.
The blindside flanker showed he was more than able to live with and surpass the likes of Kaino, and All Blacks captain and No. 8 Kieran Read.
“Something like that goes through your head all week. On a personal level, you want to show yourself that you can do it. And everyone who doubted you. It is great to have a performance against a guy like that (Read). But he is going to come back at us in two weeks time. That’s when you have to show what is in you.
“You have to keep that in the back of your mind. It was a great performance. Delighted with it but we are going to have to suck it up.”
With New Zealand now hellbent on a speedy revenge when they return to Dublin in two weeks for a Guinness Series Test at Aviva Stadium, Stander knows Ireland will have to at least maintain their standards but this first victory over the All Blacks can only have given his side a massive amount of confidence they can repeat their heroics.
“We spoke during the week about going up against the best, that you have to perform your best.
“It was unbelievable from all the boys. A confidence boost but we are playing them again in two weeks so they are going to come back with everything they have.
“There were a few mistakes out there but there was stuff we did that was good as well. We have to build on that.”
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