CJ Stander spent Friday afternoon outside his comfort zone and it had nothing to do with the sponsored car that carried him from Auckland to Whangarei.
The Munster hero, who will make his Lions debut at Eden Park against the Blues tomorrow, spent his day getting to know his travelling companions Dan Cole and Jon Davies but rather than acting out an outdated joke regarding an Englishman, Irishman and Welshman, the unlikely trio were busy bonding as they stopped off at a middle school in North Cross, North Auckland, for a visit.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” Stander said of his touring experience. “We did a community thing on Friday and it was good to get out to see different cultures and different people and see a different part of life outside of rugby.We were three boys together. It’s quite nice to learn the different personalities in the team and see different people mix together.”
Stander had another potentially uncomfortable car journey on the eve of the tour as he shared transport from Dublin to London and the Lions departure point with the Scarlets players who had crushed Munster’s Guinness PRO12 final hopes the day before.
Yet the South African-born Irishman found it helped him get over the disappointment of defeat. “There wasn’t time for hanging around and that made it a bit easier. I was in a car with all the Scarlets boys to the airport and on the plane and down to the hotel. There were talking about the win and I was the only Munster boy not part it.
“When we got together Sunday it made it easier because everyone has different stories and now you’re in something different you’re part of, you have to get your new role set in the game. That made it easier.”
Joining the Lions players’ chorus to speed learn songs from the other three constituent nations was another bridge builder as Stander got to grips with the Welsh hymn Calon Lan.
“It was quite difficult because we weren’t involved at all in the beginning (in the earlier training camps). We had to come in straight away and learn it, and the boys made it easy, but the 11 of us that came in last had to sing on our own before the squad.
“We did a good job and they gave us a good few tips. It was a bit of craic and a few lads laughing with each other and at each other. It makes it easier to fit in.”
Now Stander has to get up to speed with a new team as the Lions take on their first Super Rugby opposition.
“I think it comes down to a bit of mental prep, you know, just making sure you know your role and just go out there and play the way you’re supposed to play in your position and I think that will make it an easier transition for the team to get together. Training’s gone well and we’ve one game out now, one to go now.”
Stander will pack down in the Lions back row in another Anglo-Irish-Welsh combination, playing No.8 with flankers James Haskell and Justin Tipuric, a pair he believes he can help him play his natural carrying game.
“I think both of them look after the breakdown and both bring physicality. If they look after the breakdown, I can probably get on the ball on the next one.
“Haskell has a big physical presence, he puts in big shifts of tackling and ball-carrying. It makes it easier now just to put my head down and concentrate on my game. If I get my hands on the ball, the aim is to carry well. And in defence, I’m trying to make sure I’m on the same page as him with physicality.
“When you put on a Lions jersey you can’t make excuses. It’s the best of the best out here and you need to make yourself ready for training and for games so you just need to put your hand up and try to perform.”
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