CJ Stander: Home semi-final now a priority for Munster rugby

CJ Stander will leave the personal plaudits on one side in the run-in to the Guinness Pro12 play-offs as Munster target not just a top-four finish but a home semi-final.

With four games to play in the regular season, Munster are sitting relatively comfortably in the top four, trailing leaders Glasgow by two points and second-placed Ulster only on points difference after a six-try thumping of Connacht at Thomond Park last Saturday evening.

Stander, 25 this Sunday, contributed heartily to the 42-20 victory over the westerners, adding another Pro12 man of the match medal - “I’ve five of them now!” - to his creaking mantelpiece with a powerhouse performance on both sides of the ball.

Yet with Ospreys only two points behind them in fourth and Leinster breathing down their necks it is the team objectives that interest the back rower and the bigger picture of a bonus-point win for Munster as the province bids for a top-two finish to secure that home semi-final back at Thomond Park in late May.

“We were delighted to get a bonus point and hopefully we can push on, win the next four games and see if we can get a bonus point here and there,” Stander said.

“It was a good win to get the five points. There are a lot of teams at the same points level in the competition. The next four games are crucial to win and if we can get a bonus point - you don’t get them always - it could be crucial.

“To get a home semi-final, to get back to Thomond Park again and have the crowd behind you would help a lot and then hopefully get into the final.”

The frustration for Munster is that they will have to sit out this weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-finals and wait a fortnight before the next Pro12 game, a visit to seventh-placed Edinburgh at Murrayfield on April 11 and the chance to avenge an opening day defeat by the Scots in Limerick last September.

“It is disappointing not to be playing next weekend. We pride ourselves on the European Cup, but we missed out this season.

“Edinburgh are coming up in two weeks’ time. It is going to be tough over there. It is always tough against them. We were disappointed with how the game went here at Thomond Park at the start of the season. We need to concentrate on them in the next two weeks.

“They are playing good rugby. They showed that at Thomond Park in the first round. We just need to play our game, play the same way we did (against Connacht) but patch up the discipline. We had a few discipline issues out there but hopefully we can sort that out.”

Having been Munster’s standout performer in the opening half of the season, the South Africa-born forward’s campaign hit the skids in January when he suffered an ankle injury in the opening half of the Champions Cup pool defeat at Saracens. Stander would not resurface until late February but, according to head coach Anthony Foley, it was not until Saturday’s performance against Connacht that we saw the back rower, who becomes Irish-qualified this November, approaching his early-season form.

“He’s here a while now and hopefully he’ll be here for a while longer,” Foley said of Stander. “He’s a good lad, he’s very direct, there’s no bull in him, he is what he is. He picked up a serious ankle injury against Saracens over there and he’s worked very hard to get back. I thought he was okay in the last block of (three) games. I didn’t think he was where he was before he got the injury but tonight I thought he got back to where he was and hopefully that will continue for him.”

Stander agreed with his boss only to a certain extent.

“Before the injury against Saracens, I felt I had played a few good games here and there,” he said. “But after that injury, it was difficult to get back on form again. I won’t say I am back on form after this one game. I will see what happens in two weeks’ time but yeah, I had a six-week lay-off and to get back to fitness half way through the season, luckily we had two breaks and the S&C staff were great, the doctors and Aled (Walters, head of fitness) pulled me into the gym and I did some extra stuff. It is good to see the result after that.

“Hopefully, I can keep the form up from here. The boys are good and there is a lot of competition here, so if you don’t play your best every week, the next week you are going to be sitting in the stands. It is good to play good again and hopefully I can keep it up.”

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