Brian O’Driscoll believes CJ Stander’s courage and determination will boost the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. GAVIN MORTIMER reports.
If there’s one Irishman who knows all about the All Blacks, it’s Brian O’Driscoll. Probably the greatest player to pull on a green shirt, he definitely did it the most times, his 141 caps bettered only by Richie McCaw in world rugby. He was also given the honour of captaining the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand in 2005, an accolade that ended in agony when he was spear-tackled out of the tour in the opening moments of the first Test by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.
Twelve years on and O’Driscoll is long since retired (although not before going on his fourth Lions tour, in 2013, a feat only two other players have achieved in the team’s history) but he remains at the heart of the sport in the British Isles as an erudite TV pundit. He’s also outspoken when needs be, and makes it clear he believes the residency rule should be expanded. ‘It’s too short a period and must be addressed,’ he says.
Nonetheless, for now it’s the rule, and few countries have been as adept at exploiting its brevity as Ireland with the South African trio of CJ Stander, Quinn Roux and Richardt Strauss, as well as New Zealander Jared Payne, all having been capped in the past 12 months.
Two of that quartet, Stander and Payne, have been selected in the 41-man Lions squad for their 10-match tour of New Zealand, a rare honour for two players who only arrived in Europe five years ago.
O’Driscoll, having outlined his opinion on the residency rule, emphasises that he has nothing against Stander or Payne, both of whom he describes as ‘incredibly effective for Ireland’. In particular, the former has become a vital cog in the Irish team that in the past four months has ended the record runs of New Zealand and England.
‘Stander has definitely become the go-forward player in the Irish pack,’ says O’Driscoll. ‘Every side needs a couple of those players, who can take static ball and get you going again by making a few yards; providing your team with momentum when no one else can.’
The Lions will have several such players in New Zealand, notably the English pair of Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, the Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong and Wales No 8 Taulupe Faletau. Nonetheless, O’Driscoll, asked if he would have Stander in his Lions Test XV, replies in the affirmative.
‘I’d have him in because of his ball-carrying ability and the amount of work he gets through in defence,’ he says. ‘It would be hard to leave him out because of what he offers, but the back row will be so competitive because there’s the captain, Sam Warburton, and then Peter O’Mahony, Ross Moriarty and Sean O’Brien. All are in the mix and who knows what will happen in the opening tour games?’
But O’Driscoll sees Stander as integral to the approach the Lions will need to adopt if they’re to win their first series in New Zealand since 1971.
‘If you want to beat New Zealand you have to take them on up front,’ he says. ‘CJ is able to slow down opposition defensive line speed because he always gets you a couple of yards with the ball in hand, getting in behind the defensive line and forcing it back.’
O’Driscoll never got the chance to play against Stander. Although their careers in Ireland overlapped briefly, the South African was injured for much of his first season at Munster and by the time he found his feet, O’Driscoll had called time on his Leinster career. So, asked to assess whether Stander is mentally equipped to cope with the rigours of a Lions tour to New Zealand, O’Driscoll says: ‘It’s a little tricky to give an assessment on someone I never trained with or played against. But talking to the other lads [in the Ireland and Munster squads], they like having CJ in the side because he’s hard-nosed and uncompromising. You need that in New Zealand. He won’t be scared and he’ll take the fight to the All Blacks.’
Someone who does have close contact with Stander on a regular basis is Simon Lewis, the long-serving Cork-based correspondent for the Irish Examiner.
‘It wasn’t easy for him at first,’ he says. ‘In that first season he looked like a little boy lost at times. English wasn’t his first language, he got injured and I think, too, he was still recovering his confidence after being told by Heyneke Meyer that he was too small for a flanker. But it shows the strength of his character that he is where he is today.
‘People here say CJ is “more Munster than Munster” because of his commitment. He brings an energy to the squad, and his whole-hearted approach has made him hugely popular with the locals.’
So has the fact that despite the difference in nationality, Stander has much in common with the people of Munster.
‘He’s from a farming background in South Africa and when he’s got a day off, CJ often drives around the country looking at the farms,’ says Lewis. ‘He’s someone who enjoys the simple pleasures in life.’
It will be more than just a simple pleasure if Stander can help the Lions to only their second ever series win in New Zealand. It will be sensational for the Saffa-turned-Munsterman.
– This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine