They've both had great seasons but should Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander feature in the same Ireland back row or battle for the No 8 shirt?
By Kate Rowan
Rucks, mauls, scrums, lineouts, breakdowns, tackles, penalties, tries, conversions.
This is the traditional vocabulary associated with how rugby players forge their reputations.
Then there is the media mixed zone. Post-match mixed zones tend to be the most frantic. Quite often it is very much a case of it being the journalists’ turn to ruck and roll as a pack of five, ten, 15 or even 20, with varying agendas, grapple for position.
Back in the autumn of 2010, after Ireland’s win against Samoa, No 8 Jamie Heaslip ambled into the mixed zone at the Aviva Stadium, briefly surveyed the reporters huddling around him and declared in a theatrical growl to a couple of newbies: “I won’t bite!”
That particular act, regardless of how fleeting or insignificant showed his sense of humour and perhaps a quirky or flamboyant side to the character of a player renowned for his work-rate and dedication.
Fast-forward five years to another mixed zone, conducted after an open training session at the Aviva Stadium in the build-up to this year’s Six Nations. It was one of Munster back-row Christiaan Johan Stander’s first media engagements as a member of the Ireland squad.
After Ireland’s disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit, quite a lot of the spring optimism was centred on the potential Test debut of CJ Stander, a son of the Western Cape who had qualified under residency rules to play for Ireland. There had even been talk in the Irish media that the former Blue Bulls player, a natural No 8, could perhaps usurp the ever-reliable Heaslip of Leinster.
It is not usual mixed zone etiquette for players to shake journalists’ hands. However, it has become something of a calling card for the former Springboks U20 captain.
The ‘Stander handshake’ is sturdy and genuine; this translates to the player’s on-field performances. Stander – as with born-and-bred Munsterman Peter O’Mahony, for whom he has deputised as provincial captain during his injury-enforced absence and at blindside flanker for Ireland during this last Six Nations – plays with grit, ballast and his heart on his sleeve.
Despite growing up more than 15,000km from Thomond Park, outside of George, a city midway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth situated on South Africa’s Garden Route, the 26-year-old farmer’s son, very much espouses the values of the traditional Munsterman.
Even the fact he came to Ireland after being told his physique was not big enough to be considered a Springbok back-row meshes well with the fighting underdog with a point-to-prove spirit that for so long has been part of the Munster psyche.
Irish rugby loves a stereotype. So, you cannot have the brave and faithful Munsterman without the urbane and skilled Leinsterman! Enter Heaslip as the perfect foil to Stander.
The 32-year-old has a much decorated rugby career of 85 Ireland caps since making his debut in 2006 as well as being a two times British & Irish Lions tourist with five Test appearances.
Then there is Heaslip the entrepreneur, restaurateur and entertaining user of social media. Add to this his reputation for meticulous professionalism and a relatively injury-free career and yet sometimes it seems as if he is taken for granted by some quarters of the Irish media.
Where does this perspective come from? Is it that Heaslip does not conform to an old-fashioned notion of what a rugby player should be? Is it that despite leadership qualities and being both a three-times Six Nations and Heineken Cup winner, he assumed the Ireland captaincy during a rocky patch at the end of Declan Kidney’s tenure in 2013?
Yet on the Lions victorious tour of Australia three years ago, time and time again when in conversation with English, Welsh, Scottish and Australian media, Heaslip was flagged as a “good and intelligent speaker” and “great player”.
What we do know is that in the absence of both O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander brought out the best in each other playing for Ireland in what was far from a vintage Irish Six Nations campaign.
This week Stander was named both Players’ Player and Supporters’ Player of the year at the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association Awards, while Heaslip was awarded Try of the Year for his finish on a superb nine-pass, 80-metre team move against Italy in March.
In Ireland’s opening draw with the Welsh, Stander was named Man of the Match, the stats showing he made 23 ball-carries. But who was top of the Irish tackle count? Both loosehead prop Jack McGrath and Heaslip came in with 16 apiece.
In an interesting piece of symmetry, Heaslip was named Man of the Match in Ireland’s final game and only second victory of the championship against Scotland.
The conjecture for Ireland’s forthcoming tour to South Africa was sparked when former Ireland head coach Eddie O’Sullivan suggested that Ireland’s best back row to face the Boks would include Heaslip, a returning O’Mahony and Stander in place of O’Brien, also coming back from injury. Yet former Ireland international Donal Lenihan returned to a shootout between Heaslip and Stander for the No 8 jersey.
Building on their Six Nations form by retaining Heaslip and Stander as starters in the Irish back row as the latter returns to his homeland seems a like a logical step. The Leinsterman’s nuanced play, passing game and experience complements the Munster captain’s defence-busting, ball-carrying style.
Perhaps, the question should be: who should join them? O’Mahony’s natural abrasiveness would certainly mark him out as the man to round out the trio to take to the Newlands pitch on 11 June as Ireland aim to make history with a first Test victory over the Boks on South African soil. However, he has indicated that a decision regarding his fitness to join the tour still has to be made. If O’Brien can prove form and fitness for Leinster in the business end of the Guinness Pro12, he could reclaim the openside berth.
What is certain is that Heaslip and Stander both know who they are on and off the field. That is what matters.
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