South African Stander has started his third season with the province like a runaway train as he nears qualification for Ireland Test recognition, but to realise his dream of eventually pulling on a green jersey, the 25-year-old is no doubt acutely aware of the need to be involved at the highest level for one’s club.
For Munster that means the European Rugby Champions Cup and for all the good a man of the match award in the Guinness Pro12 win over Scarlets last Friday did him, there is no guarantee Stander will retain his place in the starting line-up for this weekend’s Pool 1 trip to the AJ Bell Stadium.
“It was a good game,” Stander said of the Scarlets win before adding: “I will forget about that (man of the match award). The competition in the back row is tough. I just want to keep my head down and work hard. When the team comes out, hopefully I am in there. If I am not, I am going to support the team. It’s a big week. Everyone has to be on edge to perform this weekend.”
Those are not hollow words from the 6ft 2ins, 17st 11lb powerhouse. Stander on Friday saw club captain Peter O’Mahony return to action after two shoulder reconstructions and reclaim the blindside flanker position he had occupied so well in his absence. The No.8 jersey in which he earned his man of the match gong last weekend is a position Robin Copeland was brought from Cardiff Blues over the summer to occupy. The explosive South African also has a battle on his hands at open-side, where Tommy O’Donnell is currently excelling and Stander said: “Pete (O’Mahony) is back and he is playing great rugby. Tommy is playing unbelievable too. I think any one of them could have got man of the match.
“Then you have guys like Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler also playing great rugby. Robin Copeland also, he is a machine, an athlete. There is about six guys there. It is fierce in the back row.
“There are a lot of great loose forwards. It is tough to keep that jersey. You just have to play well all the time. I made a few mistakes. A lot of the boys were disappointed with knock-ons, a few mistakes. Overall, it was a good performance. You have to perform week in and week out in this position.”
Stander has not let head coach Anthony Foley down in that regard, after two seasons under Rob Penney when the New Zealander appeared reluctant at times to give the new boy an extended run in the side. Under the new regime, though, the former Blue Bull is relishing the chance to run at defences, described by O’Mahony last week as a “wrecking ball” with “this unbelievable ability to turn up two or three feet from the line and use his freak strength to power over”.
“He’s a ridiculous amount of tries over the last two years as a result of it. So he’s hugely important to us,” the captain said.
“It is good to carry the ball,” Stander said. “My work rate for myself picked up a lot during the season, this season especially. In the first two seasons, I tried to work on that and it is coming through this season. The coaches Axel (Foley), Cossie (Ian Costello) and Squeaks (Brian Walsh) gave me a lot of tips — and Fla (Jerry Flannery) also. For me, carrying is a strong point. It is good to get the ball in my hand and carry forward.”
There is no doubt Stander is a sight to behold when he does get that ball in his hands but getting in the team first may yet be his biggest obstacle.