On paper Saturday night’s Super Rugby AU clash between the Western Force and the Brumbies appears to be a mismatch.
The ACT side have been the dominant franchise in Australian rugby for the past few seasons. A perfect two from two in the current competition gives them a combined 7-1 record this year.
Contrastingly, the Force have only just returned from the rugby wilderness and are winless in their first two SRAU games. While their opponents are expected to be popping the champagne in two months’ time, most have the Perth side pegged to earn the wooden spoon.
But neither numbers nor others’ expectations bear any weight for Force No. 8 and vice-captain Brynard Stander. The Perth stalwart is confident his side can come up trumps at Leichhardt Oval.
“All credit to the Brumbies – they’re a quality outfit – but statistics are there to broken,” he says.
“I 100 per cent believe that we can beat the Brumbies. If you don’t believe you can win when you play, then I don’t know if you’re playing for the right reasons.”
The Force’s positive energy has been palpable during their first two hit-outs. They bounced out to double-digit leads against both the Waratahs and Reds, showing a competitive spirit and a willingness to play positive rugby. Despite not getting the results, Stander already sees progress.
“Starting games well has been a big focus for us and I think we’ve done that really well,” he says. “We’ve come out of the blocks firing in both of our games and played some really good footy.
“There’s always a few little things that you can be better at and we’re very aware of what those things are. Moving forward we’re a team that are growing and are going to keep getting better week by week. Where there’s growth that’s always a good sign.”
Stander in particular has been a joy to watch. The man they call ‘Bull’ has been uncompromising at the breakdown, and his carries upfield have given his side great go-forward. One particular surge against the Tahs caught the eye when he dispatched Mitch Short to the SCG turf with a belligerent left-arm fend while picking up 15 metres.
Stander, though, is quick to also give the stiff arm to any personal praise. He is simply relishing the opportunity to play freely and be alongside teammates who put their bodies on the line every week.
“We’ve been given the licence by our coaches to go out and give it a crack,” he says.
“We went into both of our games with the mindset to play and leave it all out on the field. Individuals cannot perform well if your brothers around you are not willing to put their heads in dark places. For me, I see it as a whole-team performance. Everyone doing their part and giving absolutely everything.
“We’re a real tight-knit team, a real brotherhood here, and there’s no individual who thinks they are better or bigger than the rest. We’re all equal.”
Stander’s battle this weekend with his opposite number Pete Samu should be a compelling one. The Wallabies No. 8 jersey is perhaps as open as any, with incumbent Isi Naisarani not having played for over four months while Harry Wilson, Jack Dempsey and Saturday night’s combatants are all putting their hands up.
It is not just Stander at the Force who is hopeful of donning green and gold later this year. Many of his teammates also harbour hopes of gaining national selection with SRAU now bringing them into the frame.
“That’ll be a dream come true not just for me but a lot of other players as well,” says Stander.
“It’s any player’s dream to be a national representative. I think one of the reasons the team is playing as hard as we can is because every player believes they are a candidate for a Wallaby jersey. We all want to see each other have higher representation.”
Stander is now in his seventh year living in Australia after emigrating from his native South Africa. He was involved with the Sharks set-up in Durban from a young age, representing them through his junior years then the under-19 and under-21 age group levels.
He played in the Sharks’ Currie Cup championship-winning team of 2013 and was perhaps on the way to playing Super Rugby for his home province.
Then a call came one day from his agent. The Western Force were interested.
“It was a huge decision for me to leave my home town, but if you take big risks, you get big rewards. That’s how I see it,” says Stander.
“I didn’t think twice. Australia is one of the safest, most beautiful places in the world. I couldn’t believe that an opportunity like this would come knocking on my door.
“I remember when I told my mum she kind of looked at me with disbelief. She thought I was making a joke and just playing around. I will never forget her bursting into tears when I broke the news to her.
“Mum still speaks to me about it today. How grateful she is that I did go and how proud she is of how I did it. I grabbed the opportunity, and sometimes in life you don’t get many opportunities and you have to grab them and make the most of them when you do.
“The Sharks was a great place to be but I’d been there all my life and it (moving to Australia) was a fresh start and a new opportunity. I got the offer and was on the plane two weeks later.”
Stander was forced to earn his stripes with his new team. Through his first four seasons with the Force more than half of his 42 appearances came as a replacement.
Then, in 2018, Stander seemed to really hit his straps. His blockbuster National Rugby Championship campaign led to him winning player of the tournament honours. At the end of the year he was also awarded the Nathan Sharpe Medal as the Force’s players’ player.
The following year he seemed to take his game up another notch or two. The loosie in the blue, black and yellow jersey with the bobbling birds nest atop his head was omnipresent for his side who won eight of their nine games to capture the NRC crown.
Now they are back in Super Rugby and Stander, 30, seems to be playing the best rugby of his career. It’s taken him a while to get there, but better late than never.
“Maybe you can look at it that way that I’m a late bloomer,” he says.
“I also think the more time that you spend on the field and the more responsibilities you get given as a player the better you are going to get. I’ve got a few responsibilities as a leader here and I enjoy that aspect. It’s a big motivation for me to lead from the front.”
Which he will surely do on Saturday. The Bull will lower his horns, steam billowing from his nostrils, with studs sunk into the earth before charging into the Brumbies with his teammates in tow. He might even propel them to the upset of the season.