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Six Nations: CJ made a stand and it's paying big dividends for Ireland

By Jonathan Bradley

If things had worked out differently for CJ Stander, he could have been battling Rory Best for Ireland's number two jersey rather than lining out alongside the skipper when Joe Schmidt's men take on Italy at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (1.30pm).

Standing at what in his native South African terms is a mere 6ft 2in, the young Stander was told he was too small to play in his preferred back-row position and may want to give hooker a try.

Having gone on to become a familiar presence at the base of Munster's scrum in the last three years, there can be few doubts that the 25-year-old made the right decision when sticking to loose forward and his ascension to the Test stage with Ireland during the Six Nations has surely raised further eyebrows back home.

His performance with ball in hand on debut against Wales when Ireland were last at the Aviva was notably impactful, with some in his homeland already labelling him as one that got away.

The ever-respectful former Blue Bull harbours no ill will to the powers that be in the country of his birth.

"I was driven to prove them wrong, but now I just want to prove it to myself," he said.

"I wanted to play where I want to play, which is flanker or loose forward.

"I'm always going to be South African, I'm never going to be an Irishman, but I can try my best.

"I can get an Irish passport in the next 18 months, that would be ideal, and I will try to be the best South African Irish person I can be.

"Playing for Ireland, I've tried to take in all of the culture and country, tried to learn what Ireland is about.

"I've done a lot from my side and I enjoy it.

"The last six weeks have been the best time of my life."

The man who also showed promise at discus in his youth wins a fourth cap tomorrow, in the fourth Test since he qualified on residency at the end of October, and admits his freshness to the scene means that, despite captaining his province throughout this campaign, he is happy to cede leadership duties to the likes of Best and the other senior members in the panel.

"Being captain (with Munster) you always have something to say but when I walked in here I wanted to just bring energy to the team," he said.

"There are enough leaders here. I want to bring energy to the pitch, perform as best I can all the time and don't let the boys down.

"As the weeks move on I have started to speak more and more, but we have good leaders in the team already.

"We have Rory, Jamie (Heaslip) and Johnny (Sexton) so there is not much to say."

While Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini has been ruled out with a shoulder problem, and is replaced in the number two jersey by Davide Giazzon, the important figure of Edoardo Gori is fit to take his usual place at scrum-half.

Having previously featured a settled 10-12-13 axis throughout the championship, the Azzurri - who arrived in Dublin yesterday morning - have made a change at out-half for tomorrow.

Edoardo Padovani makes his first Test start having come on as a replacement against England and Scotland in the two previous rounds.

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