With a NatWest 6 Nations title already secured, Ireland number 8 CJ Stander has his sights set on a shot at Grand Slam glory against England at Twickenham next Saturday.
The St. Patrick’s Day meeting was earmarked as a Six Nations decider during the early weeks of this year’s tournament, but back-to-back defeats at the hands of Scotland and France has left England completely out of contention.
Ireland will now look to emulate the class of 2009, who were the last Irish team to sweep the board in the Championship. CJ Stander has spoken to some of the players that featured on that famous day in Cardiff, giving him a sense of what to expect in London next weekend.
“It’s a great opportunity. You check goals for yourself at the beginning of the year, and on a personal level that’s something that you strive to be. Part of a team, and now we’ve got an opportunity. We need to make sure we rest up and get ready for next weekend,” said Stander, speaking in the aftermath of the 28-8 bonus point success against Scotland.
“I’ve spoken to players, ex-players, retired players that played there and they’ve got it. This group haven’t had the opportunity, so we can surely look back on what they did and what it meant for them afterwards. For us, it’s still a job for us that we’ve got to do next week.”
Since their defeat to Wales in the fourth round of the 2017 Six Nations, Ireland have embarked on a record-breaking winning run that currently stands at 11 games. Stander feels the ruthless streak they have developed in attack has helped them to build this impressive consistency.
“You just need to use your opportunities. We said as a group we want to achieve something. That something was probably in the back of our mind. We played well in the last few games. Got lucky as well in a few games. I think some games we were physically dominant. It’s a great achievement for this group and hopefully we can push on from there.”
Coming into the clash with Scotland, the six tries conceded across the wins against Italy and Wales was identified as an area of concern in some quarters. Yet, Stander has total faith in the structures employed by defence coach Andy Farrell, which ensured that the Scots only had a single five-pointer courtesy of winger Blair Kinghorn.
“There’s probably a lot of talk outside camp about our defence and what we can do. I think Andy Farrell gives us all the tools during the week, and we just need to go out there and perform for him. He’s a very passionate man.
“I think it was just small errors by individuals in the last few games that gave them (Italy and Wales) tries. Today we just wanted to go out there and show that we can defend how we want to. Defend really for the team and for him, and make sure we get in front of them and deny them those tries.”
Stander delivered a typically assertive performance in a back row that also included Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy, who is growing in confidence every time he pulls on an Irish jersey. Jordi Murphy later made a significant impact during his 25-minute cameo off the bench, while try scorer Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath also added to Ireland’s forward play in the latter stages.
The importance of the matchday 23 in the modern game cannot be underestimated, with Stander acknowledging: “I think (the replacements) have got a job to do as they get on. It’s probably something they looked on and how they can come into the game and improve it. I think they always want to see what’s going on and fit in, and get on from there. Fair play to them to come on and put a lot of energy, because that’s all we asked for. They did that job perfectly.”
As a relatively new figure on the international scene (he made his debut in 2016), Stander has only worked under Joe Schmidt during his time with Ireland. Nevertheless, he has seen enough of the New Zealand native to know that he demands the very best from each player he selects.
“I’ve only been under him, but he’s one of the best I’ve worked with. Especially, he’s a guy that demands greatness all the time and demands everyone to be at their best every week. You want to perform for the lads and you want to perform for him. He’s a guy that asks you to pay attention to everything you do and make sure you’re fully prepared for the game.”