CJ Stander believes Munster’s Ireland heroes must maintain their high Test standards to maintain the province’s European momentum against Leicester over the next fortnight.
Ireland enjoyed an historic November international window with Stander, Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo playing major contributions in the wins over New Zealand and Australia, while Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony starred in last Saturday’s Wallabies win. John Ryan, Billy Holland and Jack O’Donoghue made Test debuts in the big win over Canada, which also featured Dave Kilcoyne, Earls, Ryan and captain O’Mahony.
For Stander, a special month was capped on Tuesday night when he was crowned Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year but the back-rower remains totally focused on the last weeks of 2016 and home and away Champions Cup clashes with Leicester.
Murray, Zebo and Stander are set to follow their comrades back into the red jersey next Saturday at Thomnd Park when they try and avoid a repeat of last year’s pool defeat in Limerick, which was followed by a reverse at Welford Road. The rest of the international contingent featured in the Guinness PRO12 return at Glasgow Warriors Friday night but if Munster are to come close to repeat of their European win over the Scottish side in October in round two then Stander believes the Ireland contingent have to carry on where they left off at the Aviva.
“The big thing that could happen is going back and taking a step down but the boys are ready to go and we’ve got massive games coming up now and that’s where the consistency comes in. We have to perform now, week in and week out. We can’t have an unbelievable game against Glasgow and then go back and play them away and drop it.
“That was us last year: up down, up down. I think we have to climb the mountain slowly and with the Leicester matches coming up that’s a big focus for everyone.
“There’s something changing in Munster and it excites me and I think it excites everyone. I’m looking forward to going back and joining up with the boys... seeing who’s pushing me out of the team!”
Stander, 26, was only half-joking. It is not just in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad that competition for back-row places is hotter than ever with the return of Peter O’Mahony at blindside from long-term injury only further muddying the waters for director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
The further progress of O’Donoghue and excellent form of Robin Copeland also piles the pressure on selection at No.8 and Stander said: “The boys are playing well and you’re sitting in the stand watching the game thinking to yourself ‘we’re going to have to go back next week and work hard’.
“In the back row in Munster there’s eight or nine guys up to international standard and that’s nice, because you know if you play almost at international level that when you come back here you’ll just slot in. I like competition. I don’t know any guy that doesn’t like competition. It keeps on driving you because when you’re in this squad you have to work hard for everything.”
Stander also recognises that maintaining form is vital to retaining a place in the Ireland set-up for the 2017 Six Nations Championship, when he could be duelling with O’Mahony for the green number six jersey.
“If you miss one meeting or one training session someone just steps in and they do their job,” he said of Ireland’s back-row resources. “It just shows the depth we have and also that jersey, you play in it week in, week out but it’s not yours. You have to play in it as if it’s maybe your last time. That’s nice because you want to train harder and you want to play harder. If you’re not on top of your game you’re going to be quickly at the back of the line again and then you’re going to have to work yourself back up through the ranks.
“All across the board there’s a lot of competition in every position and that’s really what drives the players. There’s a bit of a fear factor almost. As I said, you need to perform or else it’s to the back of the line.”
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