CJ Stander hungry for ‘dessert’ in Champions Cup

CJ Stander says he is driven by Munster’s failure to qualify for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup for the past two years.
CJ Stander hungry for ‘dessert’ in Champions Cup

“It was like taking dessert away from me at dinner, you look forward to it and then you don’t get it,” was his colourful description of the team’s uncharacteristic failure to advance to the last eight of the tournament.

This time around, a man born and bred in South Africa and nowadays rapidly becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves if his performances in the green and red jerseys are to be taken at face value, has no intention of allowing such a disappointment to haunt him for a third successive year. Incredibly, he has been honoured with the man-of-the-match honour in so many Munster matches that he claims not to know the exact number, after his latest honour in Saturday’s win over Racing 92 in Paris.

“When you get an award, just enjoy it, because one day they’ll start to dry up,” he said. “Simon Zebo tries to make jokes about it, that I pay someone! My first for a European game was a quarter-final against Toulouse when I came off the bench. That’s very special, it’s on the table and will always be there.

“Last weekend’s one also ... Saturday will be one of the best of my career. It came down to work rate and fitness. I think we are all fitter. I was in the right space to block down and just tried to work back.”

And, of course, he did so majestically to score the kind of try that typifies his every appearance in the jersey. But Stander also chose a practical way to speak of Munster’s approach as they prepare for the massive test in Glasgow on Saturday evening.

“There’s definitely a line between arrogance and confidence,” he says. “The way Axel got us to play, the way Rassie bought into the game, Fla (Jerry Flannery), Felix (Jones), and Jacques (Nienaber), they want us to go out there, get yourself into battles, win those battles, and after that, just enjoy it. That’s something we’ve brought in, getting a bit of enjoyment in the game ... Just try something, if you try your best and it doesn’t work, well, then you can’t see that as a negative.”

Since his arrival in Ireland more than four years ago, Stander has endeared himself to everyone in the province of Munster, both on and off the field, but if he was to miss out again on a European Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park, even he would be challenged to take the disappointment on the chin and with that customary smile on his face.

And he knows all too well the stumbling block Glasgow will present on their 4G pitch at Scotstoun on Saturday.

“They are one of the most physical teams I’ve played against and they also possess individual brilliance,” he warns. “ They make sure that the set piece is good, the maul is unbelievable but then they give the ball out to the backs and you see a guy like Hogg and they’ll do something that makes you think ‘how did they do that?’”

Foley was, of course, a famous No.8, just like Stander. There was massive mutual respect between them and even though another step towards something like normality was taken in Paris at the weekend, Stander believes deep down, that Axel will always be an integral member of the squad.

“It’s difficult, I don’t think we’ll ever get closure,” he says. “His voice is always there. He gave us a way to play and it’ll always be with us. He’s one of your friends, your mentors, your coaches. The reaction of the opposing teams has been very special. It just shows the game we play and we love, it doesn’t matter if you are opponents, or enemies almost, or you hate each other. Something like that can bring people together. It also shows how much Axel meant to rugby, not just in Ireland, but all over the world. It’s very special.

“You see the tributes, two or three months later, they don’t have to do it, and they still do it. It’s unbelievable.”

The business end of the rugby season is well under way and Stander is just one of many facing two European Cup matches and five Six Nations Test matches between now and March 18. Sounds pretty demanding, even intimidating, doesn’t it?

“That’s why I’m smiling,” he responds. “This is where you want to be fit, to be on top of your game and be selected. These are the games you prepare for and you look forward to as a youngster, and, yeah,.it is going to be tough, I’m not going to lie about it. But it’s exciting.

“You have to test yourself week in, week out, you have to pitch up because if you don’t, in a European game or a Test match, you’re going to be shown up for your weakness.”

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