Munster look to have pulled off quite a coup by securing CJ Stander on a two-year deal. Judging by the reaction of coaches and fans alike in South Africa, there appears to be genuine surprise that the 22-year-old has decided to move abroad. A former South Africa Schools and U2o captain, Stander had been marked out as a likely senior Springbok in the near future. The viewpoint there is that money may have played a part in the back-rower’s decision. So what exactly have Munster got for their presumably big bucks?
Stander’s swift physical development meant he was marked out as a distinct prospect from an early age. At 17, he was already representing the South Western Districts Eagles U18 side at the annual Craven Week. This tournament is one of the most prestigious schoolboy events in world rugby. It’s played out over a week, usually in July (this year’s version starts next weekend), and is quite often the stage on which future Springboks announce themselves. Despite being a year younger than his rivals, Stander’s displays earned him the captaincy of the South African Schools Academy team in 2007 (The Academy side is basically the Schools ‘B’ team, although political factors play a part in some selections).
Another impressive Craven Week the following year saw the No.8 named captain of the 2008 South African Schools team, a side which included current ‘Bok Patrick Lambie. That summer, Stander graduated from school and the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls swept to sign him. The possibility of playing Super Rugby down the line enticed the young back-row away from the SWD Eagles in his hometown of George. Back in 2008, the new Southern Kings franchise was a mere idea, meaning the highest level Stander could have played with the Eagles was Currie Cup. (From 2013, the Eagles will act as a feeder side to the Kings).
The meteoric rise continued in 2009 as Stander was selected in the South Africa U20 squad for the Junior World Championships, despite being a year young for the age-group. He started all 5 games at No.8, scoring 2 tries, as the Baby Boks finished 3rd. He was back in the squad the following year too, this time as captain. Again, Stander started all 5 games in the 8 jersey, scoring once, as the South Africans earned another 3rd place finish.
Stander returned home to play 12 times for the Bulls in the 2010 Currie Cup. This tournament is the South African equivalent of the PRO12 or ITM Cup, one step below Super Rugby. Stander started 5 times, but interestingly only wore the No.8 jersey once, with Gerrit-Jan van Velze preferred there. Instead, Stander mainly appeared at blindside (the number 7 jersey in SA), a move we have seen plenty of this season. The Bulls managed to reach the semi-finals, before losing to the Sharks.
Turning 21 in 2011 meant that Stander’s international age-grade days were over and his focus switched entirely to the Bulls. The year started well as Stander made 11 appearances, including 5 starts at No.8, in the Bulls’ run to the Vodacom Cup final. This tournament is the third-tier of South African rugby, behind Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. It’s often used to accelerate young players’ development, and that’s certainly what it did for Stander. He scored 3 tries, making an impression with his work-rate and ball-carrying ability.
Super Rugby didn’t follow that summer, but Stander went on to play a far more important part in that year’s Currie Cup campaign. He nailed down the starting berth at No.8 and played in all 14 of the Bulls’ games, 11 of them in the starting XV. He showed his try-scoring ability by crossing the whitewash 6 times from the base of the scrum. This form marked him out as a definite Super Rugby squad player for 2012. The back-rower’s 2011 season was topped off nicely when he helped the Bulls U21 side to win the ABSA U21 Currie Cup, scoring a try in the final.
This year’s Super Rugby season started with Stander firmly a squad player. With gym-rat Pierre Spies the incumbent at No.8, Springbok Deon Stegmann at 6 and Jacques Potgieter (four year his senior) at 7, Stander had to make do with a bench spot for the first 2 games. However, a hamstring injury to Stegmann catapulted Stander into the starting team for round 3 and he has coped well at openside. He’s been an ever-present for the Bulls since, although he switched across to blindside in the 4 games leading up to the international break.
His Super Rugby form led to a call-up to the 42-man Springboks training squad in the build-up to the test series against Wales. Another factor towards the call-up may have been the early murmurings that the 22-year-old was in discussions with Munster. By bringing him into the ‘Boks training group, coach Heyneke Meyer may have been trying to convince Stander to stay in South Africa. However, that might be a cynical suggestion on my part, as Stander has done well for the Bulls, scoring 4 tries in his 14 appearances up to now.
I’ve only seen Stander in live action twice this season, against the Reds in round 4 and the Chiefs in round 14. Playing at openside against the Reds and blindside against the Chiefs, Stander played the full 80 minutes in both. He didn’t stand out in either game, but at the same time there was nothing to fault in his performances. The first thing that struck me was that Stander is physically well-developed for a 22-year-old. He’s 6’2″ in height, and while the Bulls’ site lists him as 106kg, he’s almost certainly heavier than that. He’s clearly a strong, powerful player, something which is highlighted by the fact that he consistently went in high in the tackle, never getting bounced off.
Watching both games, I immediately felt that Stander was a No.8 playing out of position. He looked slightly unsure of where he should be running, supporting, clearing out, etc. The occasions when he looked truly comfortable were when he got a little bit of time on the ball in space. He showed a few glimpses of soft hands too, but playing at flanker for the Bulls seems to limit that aspect of his game. Much of Stander’s involvement came around the fringes of rucks, and to be honest he didn’t seem overly keen to be stuck in there. When play broke up, he had a good awareness of where the space was.
Having played most of his underage rugby at No.8, Stander is still learning the two other back-row positions and will only become more effective. A recurring feature of both games I watched was his control at the back of the Bulls’ incredibly effective maul. He seemed intent on getting on the ball at the back, showcasing his No.8 instincts. Indeed, he managed to score a try against the Reds from this very position. He also scored a replica of that try against the Rebels in round 11 (6.33 in the video above). In my opinion, all the signs are that Stander is a natural No.8.
Stander’s try against the Brumbies in round 9 (2.53 above, definite Steyn knock-on!) showed just how much pace and power the youngster has. From my limited viewing, this is the kind of position Munster will need to use Stander in. Whenever he receives ball in wider channels with a little more time, he looks far more threatening. Playing at 6 and 7, he carried around the fringes more, and while he never went backwards, these carries are for the tight five. His pace would also make him effective off the base of the scrum with the defence 5 metres back.
Stander’s CV and the glimpses I’ve seen in this year’s Super Rugby lead me to believe that he will have an important impact for Munster, most probably at No.8. He’s contracted to the Bulls until the conclusion of the Currie Cup. The final takes place on the 27th of October, and the Bulls will fancy their chances of making the showpiece. It’s quite likely that Munster fans will be paying more attention than usual to the South African tournament as they hope to get a good look at their new signing!
*Has anyone seen Stander playing? If you have, leave a comment below with your thoughts. Do you think he’ll be a good signing? With the possibility of Stander returning to South Africa in two years’ time, should Munster even be making signings like this, possibly stunting the development of Irish players? All opinions and feedback welcome.