Mak­ing hay in the real world

The All Blacks game will be fast and fu­ri­ous, but CJ Stander will stay calm be­fore the storm

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY / TENNIS - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

THE week of an All Blacks game is a big week. Given all the re­quests to try and sniff out tick­ets you’d say this one is a lot big­ger than most. So CJ Stander, not a great man at stay­ing calm in th­ese sit­u­a­tions, will likely be suf­fer­ing from what he calls PMS: pre-match stress.

To al­le­vi­ate this he has, ex­cuse the pun, gone back to his roots. This in­volves quality time play­ing his farm sim­u­la­tor game on PlayS­ta­tion. This is no shoot ’em up Call of Duty, as he ex­plained in the ex­cel­lent book No Bor­ders: Play­ing Rugby for Ire­land:

“It’s prob­a­bly a game for ages three to 10, but I’ve al­ways been a big kid and I love it. You’re farm­ing on the com­puter. You have your John Deere trac­tors and your Massey Fer­gu­sons and any­thing you want. You have sheep and dairy cows and you have to milk them by press­ing the but­tons. It gives you the feel­ing of farm­ing with­out all the hard work. Ideal. It calms me down.”

When Stander tunes in to it he logs out of ev­ery­thing else and be­comes, as he put it him­self last week, “OCD on that”.

He added: “I don’t play a lot but when I do I’m re­ally deep into it and it breaks up my day and breaks up my con­cen­tra­tion on the game. But I’m not stressed as much think­ing about the game and the week’s train­ing the whole time. You need that break. You need to get a break dur­ing the week and en­joy your hob­bies. And that’s one of my hob­bies.”

Its first cousin is gar­den­ing — real rather than sim­u­lated. Stander’s Lim­er­ick gaff is on al­most an acre. A big space then, he has ploughed and planted and pa­tio’d, and come up with some­thing he loves. From the roses to the laven­der to the shift in colour, giv­ing space to ev­er­greens, this farm-boy sounds happy enough with what he’s done in his back­yard.

“I like the smells when I walk past. I do some things dif­fer­ently to some peo­ple prob­a­bly. And if I wake up, the back win­dow from my bed­room is show­ing onto the back of the gar­den and I open the win­dow every morn­ing and the dogs come round, and I see the gar­den at 7 o’ clock. It’s a great way to start your day. Now, in the win­ter, I dunno if I’m go­ing to see that — you might have to wait a few hours — but it gives me a lot of joy.”

Add the two im­ages of CJ Stander and there’s some sepa­ra­tion be­tween them and a man who made his name in rugby as a wreck­ing ball. Hard to be­lieve but this is his sixth sea­son earn­ing a crust in this coun­try. And in that time he has had to evolve from straight­for­ward de­mo­li­tion derby win­ner to a bit of Strictly Come Car­ry­ing when the need arises. And in the mod­ern game that’s more of­ten than not.

Satur­day against New Zealand will be a good mea­sure of that tran­si­tion. Stander’s record against the All Blacks is bet­ter than most who’ve played them three times — a win, a loss, a draw — but get­ting into credit will need him lit­er­ally to be inch per­fect. For a car­ry­ing for­ward now, the chal­lenge, aside from sheer grunt, is to have enough foot­work to go for­ward.

“You do, so that’s the bal­ance,” he says. “That’s when some good de­fend­ers will put you un­der pressure and some­times you get a guy who’s a bit lazy and he sits and waits for you. And if a guy sits and waits for you, that’s what you want. You can see it in his eyes, and in his body. But at this level, at in­ter­na­tional level, there’s not a lot of lazy de­fend­ers. You’re al­ways un­der pressure so some­times you just have to take it, take your medicine. Carry, and if you go for­ward, great; if you go back­wards, you’re go­ing to get trou­ble on Mon­day! There’s noth­ing you can do about it.

“Yeah, some­times you can hear your name get­ting called out — but we do that as well to the op­po­si­tion. You can hear the op­po­si­tion call your name out so you just have to change what you’re do­ing in the game. Some­times it’s stronger than other games but it’s a thing that hap­pens. You need to adapt, other­wise you’ll be­come ex­tinct.”

You wouldn’t be too sure the Ki­wis would dial up that num­ber, for fear it would be in­ter­preted as flat­tery. But they have a fair idea who and what they will be deal­ing with in Lans­downe Road. The fol­low-on from Chicago 2016 was ex­tra­or­di­nary by the sani­tised stan­dards of to­day, just 24 months later. “I re­mem­ber it was a phys­i­cal game,” he says with some un­der­state­ment of the re­match two weeks later. “They came out that day. They were a bit hurt from Chicago and they came out and took us on in our back yard. They took Rob­bie (Hen­shaw) out in the first 10 min­utes. You could feel it in the car­ries and the tack­les and even in the mauls. You could just feel it, this is the one, the big match-up. I was dis­ap­pointed I couldn’t stay on the pitch and fin­ish that game be­cause those are the ones you want to be in­volved in. That day we were on the wrong side of the score­line but it’s a game where peo­ple stood up. That was war.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Joe Sch­midt has an emo­tional re­sponse to prompts of what hap­pened that day. Never mind the pho­to­graphic re­call, he gets ag­i­tated on the sub­ject.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Stander says. “Ask him now. That’s what makes him one of the great­est coaches I’ve worked with. He cares, you know, when you go out there. He cares about the peo­ple he picks in the team. When there’s a few in­juries, he will re­mem­ber that even bet­ter. That’s some­thing I don’t think we’ll men­tion but it will be in the back of our minds go­ing into the game.”

And at the fore­front will be get­ting the bal­ance right be­tween play­ing on the edge and not go­ing over it, into penalty ter­ri­tory. Keeping penal­ties to re­spectable lev­els is a top pri­or­ity in the camp, one they are very good at. And stay­ing on the right side of the high tackle pro­to­col has, so far, not been an is­sue. They work hard on fly­ing un­der the radar.

“Yeah, it’s some­thing you’ve got to train,” Stander says. “You’ve got to train that mus­cle mem­ory dur­ing the week so when you go into the game it’s a habit. Cre­ate the habit dur­ing the week and when the week­end comes you know your stuff and you can be phys­i­cal. A lot of things change in that last mil­lisec­ond on the pitch so some­times you’re wrong and some­times you’re right and you just have to take your medicine if you’re wrong.

“Dis­ci­pline is a big thing (for us). It’s never some­thing we’ve spo­ken about a lot be­cause we know that if you make a mis­take you let the team down and you let the coaches down . . . Look, I think it’s a hot topic now in world rugby but it’s not been a hot topic in this squad. We know what’s ex­pected from us in our con­tact en­try lev­els.”

He was the vic­tim of a high shot from Is­rael Dagg in the home leg of those two Tests in 2016. Given the shift in em­pha­sis on safety — not­with­stand­ing Owen Far­rell’s tackle to close the game against South Africa — we won’t be see­ing a re­peat on Satur­day. But, weather per­mit­ting, it will be a try-fest for that’s what this All Black side are about.

“Yeah, I re­mem­ber when we were play­ing them in Chicago we said es­pe­cially when it gets to 60 (min­utes) that’s when they re­ally kick on. We need to be in front of them there by two tries, or 14 points or even 17 points be­cause they’re go­ing to score two or three tries out of noth­ing. So that’s some­thing we spoke about — I think it’s go­ing to bring out some at­tack­ing rugby so you know that if you can go for a try then go for it. I think it’s go­ing to be an at­tack­ing game be­cause they’re go­ing to put you un­der pressure with tries from nowhere. The two tries they scored for the World Try of the Year they scored from 80 me­tres/90 me­tres. That’s what they can do. You have to put points on the board be­cause that last 20 min­utes is when they re­ally kick on, and when that bench comes on they re­ally fin­ish up.”

If CJ Stander wants to be alive and kick­ing at the point when the flood­gates open, then he’ll need his stress-buster buddy to keep calm in the run-up and conserve en­ergy. A dif­fer­ent kind of an­i­mal farm. “Some of the boys play cards but I get too worked-up want­ing to win so I’d have gone back to my room to look af­ter my imag­i­nary cows on my imag­i­nary farm in Amer­ica. You should give it a go. It helps take the anx­i­ety away. For me, any­way.”

When the week­end comes you know your stuff

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