CJ Stander has experienced the pain of losing important European games to Saracens but he believes Munster are now much better equipped to defeat the defending champions when they visit Thomond Park tomorrow.
Two semi-final defeats in the past three seasons have exposed a gulf in class between the old foes as the Londoners have gone on to be crowned Heineken Champions Cup winners in both 2017 and 2019, but Stander thinks the additions of coaches Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to Johann van Graan’s staff, and the confidence they have instilled in players to express themselves to their maximum potential, give Munster more than a fighting chance in tomorrow evening’s Pool 4 encounter.
Munster have been playing with a much more varied gameplan this season, backing their skills in areas where previously more traditional, conservative traits would have come to the fore yet also turning to those strengths in the province’s DNA that made them successful in the first place.
It will more than likely take both sides of that coin to defeat Saracens and keep their qualification hopes alive and Stander said this week’s preparations, particularly on the mental side to learn to stick to the newly-introduced template, will be key to getting the victory they require.
“I think that mental battle is going to be massive during the week,” the Munster No.8 said.
“We have to make sure we train well and get our processes right and just go out there and when we get in those tough situations …
“I think we’ve got very good leaders and the coaching staff, even at half-time, will just bring us back to what’s important for us as a team.
With the leaders as well, we try to lead home and away, to bring calmness and confidence to the team so that’s going to be massive.
“We’ve added to the depth in our squad, added some good players and we know how to manage games better. Against a team like that who know how to drag it out of you for 80 minutes, we know how to control certain pressure points of theirs.
“I’m not going to tell you what they are but we know how to control certain pressure points better and convert opportunities into points. It’s a game of chess.”
Having the tools to manage a game against a side as accomplished and resilient as Saracens is one thing but Stander also accepts Munster will need some X-factor to finish the job.
“Yeah. Yeah, 100%, and I think we have got those X-factor guys doing their thing every week, week in, week out. There’s a few in the forwards but it’s normally the backline that we leave it off to.”
That is where Larkham comes in, the Australian fly-half legend and accomplished coach is having a big impact on Munster’s playing style already since arriving as senior coach in the summer, and having returned from the World Cup last month, Stander is impressed by the progress already made.
“It’s good. He has given a lot of confidence, we train it, so then you can actually go out and try it on the pitch. I am probably the last guy to try and offload, I normally try and catch them from the lads, but he gives you the confidence and you look at it and sometimes in training it’s not on, so they tell you what to do differently.
We train a lot and again it just gives you that confidence in training so you can go out there in a game. If you have done 100 reps during the week, so it comes easier at the weekend.
“I think what I have learned at Munster, and Ireland as well, people are eager to learn and they are eager to take that skill on, if you give confidence from a coach like that, people are going to try it and we have some unbelievably skilful players, I am talking through the whole squad, even with the Academy lads, you look at some and you go that’s an unreal thing.
“Using a farming analogy it is taking that egg, break it open and give that guy a chance to just go do it and play his game and enjoy it, I think.
“You need to take your chances and opportunities and have something, an X factor, have something different you can bring.”