CJ Stander admits he was feeling the pressure before an e-mail from the IRFU dropped into his inbox and confirmed he definitely had a shot at Test rugby with Ireland.
Munster’s powerhouse back row and stand-in captain was reduced to a nervous wreck as he waited for news of the make-up of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad last week having finally qualified for his adopted country last November, three years after leaving the Blue Bulls in South Africa.
An invitation to Schmidt’s New Year mini-camp at Carton House gave Stander, 26, a brief introduction to life in the national set-up but it was not until official confirmation arrived last Wednesday that he was in the Six Nations squad for the first two matches next month that the forward could breath a sigh of relief and focus in on achieving his dream of wearing the Ireland jersey.
“We got an e-mail, like five minutes before the media knew,” Stander told The Irish Examiner. “I was stressed, very stressed, it was a difficult two or three nights before that because there’s a lot of questions in your head but just to get that e-mail... I worked hard to get there and now I want to put hand up and see where it goes from there. I’m very excited for this week, it’s a new challenge and something I’ve worked hard for.”
Speaking after Munster bowed out of the Champions Cup with a 28-5 bonus-point win in Treviso on Sunday, Stander, who was withdrawn after 54 minutes with his side leading 21-5, said he felt in great shape heading to Carton House.
“I’m a great frame of mind, the body’s good, no niggles, everybody’s recovery is good in Munster. And I didn’t play a full match (Sunday) so that’s also helpful going into the future.”
Stander is confident he and his provincial team-mates are leaving Munster in safe hands as they head into the Six Nations campaign while the province turns its attention to a Guinness Pro12 title push.
Stander and six other Munstermen checked into Carton House yesterday as Schmidt got preparations for Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations title defence up and running ahead of their championship opener at home to Wales a week on Sunday.
Munster, meanwhile, will have a return trip to Italy on Saturday when they travel to Zebre in Parma looking to reboot a league campaign which faltered during a miserable run of form that saw them lose to Connacht, Newport and Gwent Dragons and Leinster before getting back on track with a win at Ulster on January 2.
That leaves Anthony Foley’s side, early season pacesetter alongside Scarlets, now eight points off top spot at the halfway stage and one place out of the play-off semi-final berths, three adrift of fourth-placed Connacht.
Stander, though, believes the squad can begin the fightback this weekend and kickstart a push for silverware.
“I back this group 100%. There’s good players and good leadership in the team, and I can go away with a good heart. I know the boys will kick on.
“All the stuff we’ve talked about, all the things we want to do, it’s a collective thing. Everyone knows what we’re working towards. We want consistency from last week to this week to next week, going back to Italy, to Zebre in the Pro12. That’s important and everyone at Munster has put up their hand. Axel and the coaches have good players that they can pick from the squad and everyone is pushing for silverware at the end of the year.
“We have strength in depth. I can’t really talk around the park but in the back row there’s a lot of pressure from all the boys. Jack (O’Donoghue) came on (against Treviso) and Copey (Robin Copeland) came on and I thought Jack was going to be man of the match for that last 30 minutes, he was unbelievable. He’s a good leader, he’s a youngster and we have Robin Copeland, Billy Holland, all those boys, they’re in my position so I can talk about them but the rest are on par and they know what they want.
“We need to be in the top six to qualify for Europe again.We still have a job to do, we’re still in the running but to win silverware you need to perform every weekend and you need consistency. I know Billy and the boys will take the leadership on down here and push on.”
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