Joe Schmidt has thrown down the gauntlet to Ireland debutant CJ Stander to prove he belongs in Test rugby by surviving a white-hot breakdown battle with Wales’s experienced, all-British & Irish Lions back-row tomorrow.
Stander, 26, has been given an international debut at the first opportunity since qualifying for Ireland on residency last November, three years after leaving his native South Africa for Munster. Yet there will be no gentle introductions at blindside flanker where Stander will fill the injured Peter O’Mahony’s boots just as he has at provincial level in assuming the Munster captaincy.
Not only will the former Springbok U20 captain come face to face with a Welsh trio of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, Stander, Munster team-mate Tommy O’Donnell and Jamie Heaslip must also compensate for the loss of O’Mahony and openside flanker Sean O’Brien, who failed to pass fit having reported a tight hamstring in training earlier this week.
It may be a Test debut but Stander is no rookie in the conventional sense. His captaincy of Munster through a challenging season has been well regarded inside and outside the dressing room and he has held his own admirably over the past two seasons in European Champions Cup clashes with the likes of international-class back-rowers Sergio Parisse, Billy Vunipola and Damien Chouly.
Yet Schmidt will have told his newest recruit the step up to Test level is another steep learning curve.
“Whenever somebody is making their debut, 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,” Schmidt said.
“There is no better place than a Six Nations against a very settled and experienced side who play in a very settled manner.”
Schmidt described Stander as “actually really quiet, studious and productive. He doesn’t get his Test debut for not being productive. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a new environment for him, I’m sure he has to be more outspoken as captain in Munster, but he’s come in, he’s slotted in, he’s listened more than he’s said. He’s said very little, but what he’s shown has impressed us and certainly he’s effervescent from an energy perspective, maybe not from any discourse he’s injected into the group but certainly from his enthusiasm at training and his eagerness to slot in amongst other players that he wouldn’t know as well.
“He has been fitting in really well. He certainly is a really committed character, he has tried to slot in as best he can and we just kind of felt it would be a good mix particularly in the absence of Sean O’Brien.”
Tomorrow’s game will also be poignant for O’Donnell, whose World Cup dream was ended last August in a warm-up Test against Wales when he dislocated his hip. It will also mark the second year in a row he has deputised for the stricken O’Brien at short notice in a championship opener. The onus will not, though, just be on the Irish back-row to turn the tables this time around.
The pack shows changes in every row from Cardiff last year, with Mike Ross absent at tighthead, Paul O’Connell retired from Test rugby in addition to O’Mahony and O’Brien. Schmidt also has to make do once more without the injured Cian Healy while full-back Rob Kearney has also gone down with a hamstring issue and is covered for tomorrow by Simon Zebo.
Yet the head coach yesterday refused to get hung up on the absentees.
“What we have tried to do is stay hugely focused on the people we have and the qualities they bring. And you know the confidence we have in the guys who are in there to step up. While we were massively disappointed with the result in Cardiff and the (World Cup) quarter-final (defeat to Argentina), there were a number of guys who stepped in their roles on a limited preparation so we have a little bit more preparation this time. Although Sean and Rob were late withdrawals so that always complicated it a little bit. It means you have to juggle or slot guys in quite late.
“We feel relatively prepared for that but also cognisant of the fact they will be well prepared because there has been real rhythm and continuity in their selections and the way they play the game.”
England’s incoming head coach Eddie Jones last week contrasted the nature of the Six Nations to that of the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship. The former, said the Australian, is about “contest”, the latter about “continuity”.
“This is about contest and the primary contest is set-piece and then you’ve got the breakdown. The only time I’ve ever seen the Six Nations as a continuity contest was the last day last year when everyone threw everything out and played for bonus points that weren’t there,” Jones added.
No-one has contested consistently better than Wales and Schmidt is an admirer of their effectiveness.
“Wales have a formula that works for them. They have a continuity of selection and they play a power game that they’re built to play. If they bring their wingers off 10 or off 9 and they’re big and they’re strong, Tom James or George North, or if they bring Jamie Roberts through the middle - Jon Davies is a big man as well, good feet - that’s a challenge for us every time they do it.
“And then they get big players carrying around the corner or back on the short side or trying to go right through the middle of you. If that doesn’t work then Dan Biggar’s kicking ability will test you out in behind that front line. That’s a formula that really works for them and that’s been proven in the successes they’ve had.”
Yet for all Schmidt’s talk of Wales’s vast experience, few of his own players are new boys either. All bar tighthead Nathan White and Stander have contributed to the back-to-back title success and Ireland must now prove they have the chops to meet fire with fire. The odds favour Wales but the task is not beyond the defending champions to grind out a winning start.
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