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Six Nations France v Ireland: CJ craving more after first taste of Ireland action

By Jonathan Bradley

Looking through the stats from Sunday's Six Nations draw between Ireland and Wales, it is easy to see why debutant CJ Stander was the one wearing the man of the match medal when all was said and done.

There were other candidates - Jamie Roberts, Taulupe Faletau and Rob Evans were superb for the visitors while Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip put up their hands for Joe Schmidt's side - but the South African, in Ireland's first game since he qualified for the Test side on residency, made a huge impact with 23 carries and 11 tackles.

The man himself was not too sure.

"I think they just went, 'he's new, just give it to him'," he said after the 16-16 tie. "I just want to play my game.

"If I get an award, for me it's all about the team. I play well if the team plays well and if the team plays well I play well.

"It's good to get that individual recognition but it's all about the team."

If both the performance and post-match modesty made it easy to see why Munster have warmed so much to this son of the Western Cape over the last three years, it was his committed airing of the anthems that had fans talking.

Relying on his provincial team-mates for assistance, the 25-year-old admitted he was nervous during the pre-match ceremonies.

"I was very emotional. It was my first time getting out there in front of the President and all the supporters," he mused.

"I was happy enough to be next to Tommy (O'Donnell) and (Conor) Murray and when I got lost here and there it was easy enough to jump in.

"Donnacha Ryan stepped up this week and taught me a few words, taught me the whole thing. I tried to make him proud."

While some in his native land are already bemoaning the loss of one that got away, the blindside flanker knows that the Stander clan will have been watching on with pride in the city of George.

"I wish my family were here but when I heard I was in the team it was a bit difficult for them to get over," he said.

"My wife was here, I think she's still crying. I'm going to see her now. It's good. Everyone back home, my phone is going to be mental, I'd big support from there.

"You can't put the support into words; it's an unbelievable experience in this place in front of this crowd.

"I never thought I'd get this opportunity and this week was one of the most emotional weeks I've had.

"Walking down from the hotel to the pitch, it's goosebumps stuff. I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'm glad to get it."

While it hardly showed in his performance, the step up from PRO12 and Europe, where Anthony Foley's men are having something of a season to forget, when the match eventually got under way was noticeable for the former Blue Bull.

"It's funny because you play against the boys in the PRO12 and European games and then you get out there and it's a massive step-up in intensity," he said.

"Everything was a big step-up. The first 20 minutes was tough going but after that you get used to it.

"You get your second breath and you just play your game. I was delighted with that. It's great to get the opportunity."

Perhaps the only thing that didn't go right for Stander this week was the result - a 13-0 lead turned into a 16-13 deficit before Sexton ensured parity just before the final whistle.

With neither side able to maintain control, a draw was the fair result but Stander was frustrated that his side could not make their early advantage stick.

"We let them back into the game," he complained.

"We knew we had to score past them, we knew we needed to get the ball back but in fairness to them they kept the ball for, I don't know, 25 phases, they just kept on going.

"We didn't get the ball that much in the second-half - I don't know what the stats were - but it's something you need to close out the game and we did great to get where we got to."

With Ireland hopeful that Sean O'Brien will return to action this week against France - and with Ulsterman Chris Henry to return in the latter rounds of the championship - Schmidt's back-row options will become more varied in the weeks to come but Stander is keen to build on his eye-catching debut.

"I would have liked to have more metres made but it was just good to get my first cap under the belt and get the ball in my hand," he said.

"It was a good base and it was good to get used to it and, hopefully, into the next few games."

With England to come following Saturday's visit to the Stade de France, matching his impact from last weekend over the remainder of this month would make quite the mark indeed.

Belfast Telegraph


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