CJ Stander has no problem recalling the pain of defeat to Leinster when their old rivals taught Munster a lesson at Thomond Park over Christmas.
In fact, following that humbling 24-7 reverse by Leo Cullen’s side on December 27, head coach Anthony Foley ordered his players not to forget it.
“I remember when we walked in Axel sat us down and said ‘remember this feeling’ and he walked out,” Stander said this week. “You don’t have to say much.”
That defeat, was the fifth straight loss for a Munster side losing its way in both the Guinness Pro12 and Champions Cup. Europe is now a distant memory but Stander’s side is still paying the price for that miserable run, clinging onto to fourth place in the league and Ulster and Glasgow breathing down their necks to claim that all-important final play-off spot with just four games to go.
The first of those matches is an unenviable trip to second-placed Leinster tomorrow evening at the Aviva Stadium and Stander knows Munster cannot afford a second defeat of the campaign to their rivals.
“They came to Thomond Park and they gave us a hiding. The Sean O’Briens...those boys, they just ran over us, got easy yards and we struggled to get defence into them. They scored an intercept try, I think it was 95, 90 metres...
“You are always going to owe them when they come down here (and win). But the year before we won both of the two matches. This weekend there is a lot of the line for both of us. We lost against a good Leinster side and we know that. Going up this weekend it is something that will be in the back of our heads but also we know they are a good side, a quality side and against Connacht, (7-6 win for Connacht last Saturday), Leinster played some great rugby. There were unlucky and we know we have to work hard this weekend. There is a few of their boys who were on the bench who are coming into the team, but I don’t know if Johnny (Sexton) is going to play. It’s going to be an interesting match-up.”
This time around there is a new dimension to this latest derby encounter for Stander. Since that Christmas defeat the 25-year-old from South Africa who qualified for Ireland on residency last November, has been capped by Joe Schmidt. His good impression at blindside flanker in Peter O’Mahony’s absence earned him plaudits and a man of the match award against Italy in addition to his five Test caps. It has also turned Leinster rivals into international team-mates.
“It’s going to be interesting. It’s the first time playing with the (Ireland) boys and then coming back and playing against them two weeks later.
“You can’t come back and not perform. If you come back, you need to bring something different. I wouldn’t say there is going to be a (target) on you but you are playing for Irish rugby now and people are going to try to dominate you and try to get into your head and stuff. It is the first time going back playing against friends but we have a job to do and I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be physical, emotional and since I arrived here these are the ones you want to play in. I am looking forward to going to the Aviva. We had some good and bad luck there. It will be interesting.”
Stander is not so sure the revelation of inside knowledge from being in camp with the likes of tomorrow’s possible back-row rivals Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip will be to either party’s advantage, not that he didn’t try to get an edge. “There were a few times I tried to catch them out to get a few calls but it didn’t work,” he joked. Yet Stander feels he returned to Munster a different player for his Six Nations experience. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned everything has to be instinct rather than a thought, especially with the first two matches, they were very intense. The Wales match was very intense. You don’t have that much time on the ball. What I found in the Zebre match (in the Pro12 last Friday) was the intensity was down. There was a bit of time you could do something with the ball but for me now it is instinct. That is something I have learned up there. I need to bring back down here the energy I had up there. Bring it down here and just play.”
There have also been positive changes in his absence at provincial level, Stander detected.
“Things moved forward. Boys are positive... training was a lot more direct and intense. It’s great to get back with the boys. You always keep in touch with them but if you are away that long, you always feel something is wrong because they are your mates, they are your buddies.
“Coming back into training and the games, especially against Zebre, it was open so there was a lot of playing the ball and stuff. There is a bit of enjoyment in the team. That is something we didn’t have in the team before we left. It was good to have.”
And Stander is hopeful the feelgood factor can translate into a strong finish to the season, perhaps even leading to a Pro12 grand final in Edinburgh. The first step, though, is beating Leinster.
“We have fourth spot now, we still have got to push on for silverware at the end of the year.
“It will come down to numbers if you get to the last game, and will come down to this match at the weekend. If you slip up this weekend, against a great Leinster side, you are in trouble.”
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