Stander lifts rugby doom and gloom

RugbyBy Roy Curtis
CJ Stander's powerful performance was rewarded with the man-of-the-match award
CJ Stander's powerful performance was rewarded with the man-of-the-match award

A cartographer mapping CJ Stander’s rise could hardly be faulted for simply retracing the trajectory of a sky rocket, engines ablaze, shooting skyward from the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

With a single precipitous upward flourish of pen upon paper, the atlas of Stander’s jaw-dropping international take-off would be complete.

A stratospheric ascent has ushered the Munster captain to new terrain at the northern pole of the old game’s hierarchy.

And in so doing he helped to airlift his adopted nation from the pit of World Cup despair.

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A stunning opening salvo from Stander felt like an eviction notice to the virus of negativity that has been squatting in Irish rugby’s soul since the autumn.

If the World Cup brutally exposed the myth of Joe Schmidt's side residing among the game’s aristocracy, Stander magnificently railed against any ebbing of Ireland's Six Nations imperium.

Stripped of those twin behemoths of charisma and achievement, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, jolted by the provinces' tame European meltdown, Schmidt ached for a mainspring to redirect Ireland back to the very best of themselves.

They found him in a South African who arrived in Limerick three years ago with little other than a rejection letter from his home land. It read, bluntly, brutally: Too small, won't make it. 

Here he was a ball-carrying totem, a defensive Hercules, a mammoth wall of green defiance.

Stander was a tide of yearning that simply refused to ebb.  His craving was infectious.

Perhaps it was all those concussive blows taking their toll, but in recent months Jonathan Sexton has been but a shadow of the playmaker of old.

Here though he answered Ireland's hankering for a presiding genius.

Simon Zebo offered tantalising flashes of unorthodox invention, Keith Earls was eager, busy; Jamie Heaslip reminded his critics that when the mood takes him, he becomes a force of nature;  Conor Murray draped himself in the flag of a world class scrum-half. 

As the nation’s bedraggled flagship listed and groaned against Argentina four months ago, it felt as if something elemental had been lost, as if Ireland’s days in the rugby sun had been consigned to history.

There were murmurings about Schmidt mislaying his Midas touch; the saintly crown of light about his person seemed not to burn so bright.

If the kick-chase philosophy that brought those back-to-back Six Nations titles could rarely be confused with the beautiful game, it was at least varnished with the sheen of glory.

But the Argentina debacle radically altered the narrative.

All at once there was a growing unease at his conservative game plan, at a failure to reseed the team with the coltish daring of Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier or Garry Ringrose.

All the hope that had accompanied Ireland into the World Cup had fragmented into a thousand tiny pieces. 

Had Ireland lost here, the uncomfortable interrogations of Schmidt in the days ahead could feel for all the world like a visit to a 16th century Star Chamber.