Stander appeared to be in something of a post-Lions slump as he rumbled into
action for his province, his first game back after the drawn third Test with the All Blacks coming on September 30 against Cardiff Blues.
Last Saturday’s victory over his native South Africa, though, was hailed by Irish head coach Schmidt as Stander’s launchpad for the season as he led the team in carries in a record 38-3 win over the Springboks, and the 27-year-old admitted it was the national team boss who lit the fire under him.
“At the beginning of the year, I felt I was trying maybe to concentrate on stuff that wasn’t in my control,” Stander said, as he looked forward to a potential 17th cap this Saturday against Fiji. “Joe spoke to me before the game and gave a good analogy, said I was like an aeroplane on the runway, I’m there but I’m not going up.
“So look, I won’t say I’m flying yet, I’m probably on the take off so it was great for me to get the nod from him and to get the responsibility to go out on Saturday and perform.”
Stander’s previous engagement with the Springboks had been less auspicious, controversially sent off in the opening Test in Cape Town in June 2016, suspended for the second Test and losing the third in the series decider.
“I feel I didn’t get the opportunity in South Africa a year ago because we didn’t win there and the one time we won, I went off the pitch early. There were none of those feelings so it’s been a good week, a good Saturday evening, I really enjoyed it.”
Yet he insisted that experience on the 2016 tour was not used as motivation.
“No. I tried to get that out of my head. Nothing really, I just felt I had a slow start to the season so I just wanted to get back in and perform well in the jersey again, so that was my motivation, nothing else outside of that.”
Stander’s native tongue of Afrikaans helped him understand the extra treatment he was getting from the Boks during the game and judging from his frequent vocal appearances on the referee’s microphone, he was loving every minute of it.
“I know most of them so I got a bit of extra treatment. I understand the language so it makes easier to understand if it’s directed towards me. It was a good game, no niggles really. I think both teams got down to their jobs and if you play for this team, play for Joe, you let that white noise slide and just concentrate on your job.”
Ireland did their jobs much better than their opponents, as they racked up a record winning margin and fuelled the rugby consensus that the Springboks are a team in serious decline. Stander isn’t so sure.
“I think if you look at three or four weeks before we played them, 24-25 against the All Blacks at home just shows, they got back from 57-0, shows that they can pitch up and play the game they want to.
“It just depends on the personnel on the day. If they are switched on or not, that’s up to them. But they can bring it to the table. To come back from 50-0 margin to 24-25, it’s impressive.”
Stander will soon be working with the Boks’ forwards coach van Graan, who leaves his post after South Africa’s Test against France in Paris this Saturday and starts work with Munster next Monday.
“It’s exciting and it’s also a challenge. If a new guy comes in halfway through the season, it’s a big job on his shoulders. But I think from a players perspective, we’re a good group of leaders. I think we have taken charge for the last number of seasons.
“He’s going to come in and we’re almost going to give him the way we want to play and he’s going to give us a few different ways he wants to play.
“He’s been here for a week and a half to see how we operate in a European week so he knows what it takes in a high-level week. I think he’s the type of guy who will come in and slot in straight away.”
Stander worked with the new head coach when they were both starting out, he as a player, van Graan as a coach at the Blue Bulls in Pretoria, and the back rower said: “I think he’s the best fit out there. Coach-wise, he’s between Rassie and Jacques in personality so that’s perfect.... I think where we are at the time of the year, in the middle of the season, this is the best guy who can step in and take over the job. I’m looking forward to going back.”