CJ Stander believes the current Munster squad may not peak for another one or two years but they are capable of ending this season with the United Rugby Championship title.
Stander shocked Munster and Ireland when he announced his retirement from the game last year at the age of 31 and returned to his native South Africa to begin a career in the construction industry. But he has not stopped following his adopted province’s every move and he is excited for their future under incoming head coach Graham Rowntree.
The former back-rower also believes if Munster can win this weekend in their final match of the URC regular season at table toppers Leinster then the momentum that has been building for the last six weeks can catapult them towards a first trophy since 2011.
Munster need a victory at Aviva Stadium on Saturday night in their first game since an agonising European quarter-final defeat to Toulouse after a penalty-kick shootout, to be sure of a home URC quarter-final at Thomond Park on June 4. But equally they know defeat could send them on the road for a tricky last-eight tie, perhaps in Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria or Belfast.
Speaking on Wednesday during a media conference call organised by URC, Stander responded to a question about whether Johann van Graan’s team could land silverware this season by saying: “Yes. This weekend is probably going to be a big test. I wish this was next week because if you asked me this next week and they have won then I’d say yes, but the tricky one is going to be if they have to travel. If they play an away quarter-final, it’s tough.
“But what I’ve seen against Toulouse, that was exceptional, probably the best game I’ve ever seen Munster play and if I sit and think back about meetings we had about the game or where Munster needed to go, that was exactly the blueprint.
“So, yes. If they could have won it at the end, awesome, I think they could have gone a bit further. It was out of their reach at the end but I think this weekend is their biggest test. If they can get this win at the weekend I think they will have moved on a few steps more from April and I think, not think, I know if they win this weekend there’s a trophy on the cards.”
That begged the obvious question to Stander of whether Munster can actually upset the odds and beat a rampant Leinster on their home turf this Saturday.
“Yes, for sure. I don’t know what the teams are going to be and I don’t know what the squads are going to look like. I know there are a few injuries for Leinster and the same with Munster but yes.
“Against Toulouse it just showed what they can do and if they can take that mentality against Leinster, not shy away from that game and play the game they want from the start, well done.”
Looking beyond this season, when Bath-bound van Graan will depart this summer and take defence coach JP Ferreira with him while senior coach Stephen Larkham returns to the Brumbies, Stander was optimistic for Munster under Rowntree, when the forwards coach will succeed the South African as the boss.
"I talk to a few players but mostly some of the coaches. I have a very good relationship with Johann van Graan and I spoke to him quite a bit. Now and then, Graham Rowntree and I spoke to JP Ferreira this morning. A few of the players as well.
"For me, I'm proud. To get to a point where you're playing in a quarter-final and something you should have won is unbelievable. To be second in the URC ahead of this weekend, I'm proud of the boys.
"I say 'we' but I need to say 'them.' When I was still there, we had a goal and a plan. You can see things are coming together. Everyone has to make decisions but for me, they're almost at that place, they need one or two more years together.
"But I know that the coaching staff, with Graham taking over, he is just going to keep on with that attitude. He's obviously going to bring some things in, but the biggest thing is that they've gone back to that Munster core that we all know and that's exciting to see."
Stander admitted he and wife Jean-Marie were missing life in Limerick but they were adapting to life back in South Africa.
"The weather is better. Adapting is still a process I need to learn. I'm working almost normal hours from 7 until 6 sometimes and the construction service is a 24-hour job. Suddenly, we have to make time to see friends on weekends when we used not to have that.
"It's great, it's good to be back home and see family. We do miss Ireland a lot. The big thing for me is to keep my wife from crying every second week because she wants to move back.
"But it's been great, the transition was quite easy. I always said that I had a good relationship with my family and that structure has been awesome to fall back on."
He will not, despite numerous offers, be back playing any time soon, save for a game of touch rugby in his new hometown of Paarl, near Cape Town.
"Yeah, there was a few teams, a few guys calling me afterwards, and a few clubs around where I live now, Paarl, who asked the question. I just feel I've done my part and when I hung up my boots, that was it for me. I'm really proud of that decision.
"I do miss the game and I do play a bit of touch with some people on a pitch close to home but that's about it.
"I don't like the contact anymore. When I sit at home and watch the game and have a few pints, I just think, 'Oof.' Like Munster against Toulouse, I was thinking I couldn't imagine having the feeling of just being broken to bits on Sunday and Monday."