Among a sea of Guinness PRO14 stars on show in Dublin, Munster’s CJ Stander stood out from the crowd, showcasing his prowess across all areas of the pitch to steer his team towards a hard-fought win.
The 29-year-old had been handed the No.6 shirt to make room in the back row for Caelan Doris, but an early injury to the Leinster youngster paved the way for Stander’s return to No.8, where he duly demonstrated why he is considered so valuable to Ireland’s pack.
Here, we take a quick look at how he influenced his country’s Championship opener, and how his form could affect Munster’s chase for silverware this season.
Adding value in any position
Having started four of Ireland’s five 2019 Rugby World Cup matches at No.8, Stander was forced to make the move to blindside flanker to accommodate Doris, who has been one of the leading lights in the Guinness PRO14 this season.
Rather than being a sign of Doris’ superiority however, the change signalled the adaptability of the South-African born star, who insisted ahead of the game he was comfortable anywhere in the back row.
“It’s not really a big switch for me,” he said. “It’s just a number change, and my job there is to make sure I get into space a little bit and work with the boys around me and give them an easier job.”
Indeed, Stander graced Doris’ inclusion by offering him advice and encouragement ahead of kick-off, only for the 21-year-old to be forced off in the opening minutes.
Return to familiar territory
With replacement Peter O’Mahony assuming his position on the blindside, Stander went about his business in his more familiar position and was a menace throughout as Ireland squeezed over the line.
Opposing fly-halves Johnny Sexton and Adam Hastings were the only two scorers on the day, with the Irish skipper notching the game’s only try early on to guide his team to glory.
Stander epitomised the workmanlike performance from the hosts, making the most carries in the game (17) and the second-highest amount of Irish tackles (17), while he won two turnovers – including one at the death which clinched the win.
While we are somewhat used to seeing him boss attack and defence in such fashion, the distance Stander travelled with the ball stood out, with the 43 metres he made only bettered by Jordan Larmour, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose.
Stander’s main job will always come in his ability to make ground in tight, but these contributions when the game opened up were more reminiscent of his displays when he first broke into the Ireland team and certainly bode well for the future.
Regardless of when Doris makes his return from injury, Stander showed why even with a young buck pushing hard, Farrell simply had to include him in his starting lineup.
What could form mean for club and country?
While Ireland have plenty to work on ahead of Wales’ visit to the Aviva stadium in Round 2, Farrell will be hopeful that Stander can continue his impressive form and strengthen his team’s bid for a second Guinness Six Nations title in three years.
Back at home, Munster face a tough few weeks without one of their key players but will be eager to boost their position towards the top of Conference B and aid Stander’s bid to secure his first piece of silverware with the province.
With the announcement earlier this week that Damian de Allende, RG Snyman and Matt Gallagher will all join Munster at the start of next season, the three-time Guinness PRO14 champions look to be in a good position to challenge for honours going forward.
But if the likes of Stander can return from the Guinness Six Nations firing on all cylinders, coach Johann van Graan will be hopeful of success before the end of the current campaign.