South Africa-born back-rower CJ Stander has admitted NatWest 6 Nations champions Ireland’s Grand Slam bid against England is now the biggest game of his career.
The Munster loose forward insisted he appreciates the significance of helping Ireland chase just a third-ever Six Nations clean sweep, especially on St Patrick’s Day and at Twickenham.
Ireland claimed a record 11th consecutive win with Saturday’s 28-8 victory over Scotland, and that proved enough to swipe the title a week early as England lost 22-16 to France in Paris.
Former South Africa Under-20s star Stander swapped Super Rugby’s Blue Bulls for Munster in 2012 after Springboks coaches told him he was too small to be a Test-match flanker.
Six years on he has a British and Irish Lions cap, helped Ireland claim a maiden win over New Zealand – and now has the chance to drive Joe Schmidt’s men to a first Grand Slam since 2009.
Asked if Saturday’s Twickenham showdown is now the biggest game of his career, Stander replied: “Yes, for sure; there’s an opportunity to create something for ourselves as a group.
“Some of us, it’s their first Six Nations, some of us have been here for a few years.
“Preparation wise, put the head down, make sure you train well and get into the team for Saturday.
“It’s a great opportunity. You set goals for yourself at the beginning of the year and on a personal level you strive to be part of that.
“Now we’ve got an opportunity and we’ve got to make sure we rest up and get ready for next week.
“We’ve talked to players and ex-players who won the Grand Slam. This group, we haven’t had the opportunity so we can look back at how they did it and what it meant to them. We’ve still got a job to do.”
Allied to setting a new all-time national win record, Kiwi coach Schmidt has now guided Ireland to three Six Nations titles in just five years.
Stander has become an Ireland mainstay under Schmidt since qualifying on residency and making his debut in the 2016 Six Nations.
The 27-year-old has always spoken candidly about his decision not to accept the Springboks’ attempts to convert him into a hooker, believing him too small to cope as a Test back-row forward.
But now with 22 Ireland caps under his belt in the back-row, Stander feels his decision more vindicated than ever, even though he knows some may never agree.
Asked if opportunities like chasing a Grand Slam with Ireland only serve to add more credence to his original decision to leave South Africa, Stander said: “Yes but at the same time a lot of players make a lot of sacrifices.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be here but a lot of people stuck their head out for me and taught me a lot of the game.
“I lost a lot of friends and coaches along the way so it’s good to give them something back.
“We said as a group we wanted to achieve something. That was probably in the back of our minds, we’ve played well in the last few games, got lucky as well in a few games.
“Some games we were physically dominant. It’s a great achievement for this group and hopefully we can push on.”
A much-changed Wales overcame yellow cards to Liam Williams and Gareth Davies to put Italy to the sword at Principality Stadium and place themselves in the mix for the runners-up spot in the Six Nations.
With injuries blighting their campaign, 10 changes were made by Warren Gatland, with several players making their first starts, while all eyes were on debutant James Davies at flanker.
Here, we analyse the performance of Davies and two other new faces with an evolving Wales squad looking to blood a wave of new talent ahead of next year’s World Cup.
James Davies (27)
Passes – 3
Runs – 4
Metres made – 20
Tackles – 18
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 1
The Welsh public has been waiting a while to see the Scarlets flanker get his hands on a red jersey at international level, and they weren’t disappointed as Davies put in an all-action performance.
The man nicknamed “Cubby Boi” has put in numerous man-of-the-match displays at club level where he has won a Pro12 title, but for some reason the 27-year-old has had to wait for recognition at international level – in stark contrast to older brother Jonathan who has earned 65 caps for the Dragons and been one of the standouts for Warren Gatland – for Wales and the Lions – for much of the last decade.
The elder Davies is nicknamed ‘Fox” which in turn explains James’ moniker, which became infamous after a trip to Las Vegas in which he got it tattooed on his knuckles.
It is crazy shenanigans such as that off the pitch, and sometimes on it, that has apparently deterred the Welsh management from giving Davies a shot; it was the morning after the Vegas incident that Davies found out he hadn’t been included in Wales’ 2015 Rugby World Cup squad.
Wales have a number of superb options at flanker, but other than Justin Tipuric – who also somehow struggles to get a proper look-in – lack genuine dynamism.
Davies showed that in abundance as he made several forays forward against Italy as well as making the most tackles of any Welsh player.
He did more than enough to suggest he can thrive at international level – forcing a turnover, stealing possession and gathering a well-weighted chip to set up a sparkling move that almost yielded a try for Steff Evans. His performance was only blighted by a shoulder charge and a knock-on.
Owen Watkin (21)
Passes – 6
Runs – 2
Metres made – 56
Tackles – 10
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 0
Like Davies at flanker, Wales have been accused of a lack of ideas at centre in recent years, where the crash ball skills of Jamie Roberts were utilised heavily throughout the ‘Warrenball’ days.
Wales and their head coach were rightly accused of being too one-dimensional, especially when they had the guile of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies at their disposal.
But with Roberts in his twilight years and Gatland’s era coming to an end, the Kiwi has admirably begun the handover by belatedly switching up Wales’ attacking approach, with Watkin bedded in during the autumn internationals.
The young centre’s cunning and footballing instincts epitomise Gatland’s free-running tactical shift for the game against porous opposition and it didn’t take long for the Ospreys centre to have an impact.
A brilliant intercept after a terrible blind pass from Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda saw the centre surge up the middle of the field and into enemy territory. His speed was impressive and when he was running out of room, he had the presence of mind to slow down slightly and fling a perfect pass into the arms of George North who finished with aplomb. It was brilliant vision from Watkin, coupled with searing pace and intelligence that belied his 21 years.
He made the third-most metres of any team-mate outside North and Evans and also put in a shift in defence, making 10 tackles – joint sixth in a red shirt.
In the build-up to the game Watkin had revealed his dream of wanting to play in a World Cup. He certainly didn’t do his prospects any harm here.
Elliot Dee (24)
Passes – 2
Runs – 9
Metres made – 4
Tackles – 10
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 1
Recovered from an early penalty conceded for taking out Sergio Parisse as Italy pressed near the Wales line to enjoy a near faultless display.
The hooker, like Watkin, has been around the fringes of the squad since featuring in the autumn, making his debut against Georgia. But he shone on his first start with his insatiable work rate evident throughout.
The Dragons prospect epitomises what the modern forward is all about. Long gone are the days when a portly battering ram would thrive at the elite level. Today everyone in the pack has to be an athlete and Dee showed desire to scrap for every ball – effective in both defence and attack.
He even could have had a try at the end of the first half when he saw an opening and scampered to brilliantly charge down Azzurri scrum-half Marcello Violo’s box kick. He was held back as he dived on the ball, and even though a penalty was given by Jerome Garces, Violo survived being sin-binned.
Dee spoke earlier this week of wanting to make his late mum Lynn proud when he made his first start for Wales, on Mother’s Day.
The Dragons hooker, who turned 24 last week, lost his mum two years ago but she surely would have been proud of her son’s blistering performance.
With four games of their Six Nations campaign now in the books, there are not many England players who come away with much credit.
Owen Farrell has been head and shoulders their best player, Joe Launchbury has been consistent, Jonny May has scored a few tries but hardly set the world alight, after that it’s a bit of a struggle.
In fact, the Englishman whose stature has grown more than any has not even touched a ball this campaign.
Billy Vunipola fracturing his arm in January was seen as a hammer blow to England – but by no means to the extent we have seen in the last four weeks.
Depth is something England seemingly didn’t lack with Sam Simmonds and Nathan Hughes more than able to take the Number 8 deputies, on paper.
As the old cliché goes however, games aren’t played on paper and the loss of Vunipola has been immeasurably worse than Eddie Jones could have imagined – highlighted in Paris during England’s dismal 22-16 defeat to France.
It’s all too easy to say Vunipola gets England on the front foot in terms of carrying but that generalisation diminishes exactly why he is so crucial to how England play.
With a back-row of Chris Robshaw, Courtney Lawes, and either Hughes or Simmonds, England have found it impossible to replicate the dynamism of Vunipola’s ball carrying and the ability to secure ball. Whether this be in open play, or from the base of the scrum, the Saracens man is as close to a guarantee of metres-made as you are going to get.
With go-forward and broken tackles, comes the part most obvious in Paris – the dragging-in of defenders, and turning of defences.
England were on the receiving end of nine turnovers against France, an astounding number and one certainly not conducive to winning matches.
But why could French defenders get their hands on the ball with such regularity?
The simple answer is England’s runners weren’t doing enough to break the gain line. Tackles were made by single defenders allowing those in support to compete for the ball.
England were simply not quick enough to compete. Robshaw put a shift in – but that can’t be enough at international level, while Lawes continues to be exposed at blindside.
Vunipola is a much harder man to stop, meaning those defensive support players often become part of the tackle, or have to turn on their heels to get back in through the gate allowing more time for England to secure.
Add into this the defensive and set piece duties he adds and it’s clear that England need a back row plan-b pretty swiftly if they can be considered a genuine World Cup contender next year.