CJ Stander believes Johann van Graan will have headaches finalising his back-row trio for next Sunday’s all-important European Champions Cup game against Racing 92.
Munster travel to Paris in possession of a four-point lead over the French side in Pool 4 but are braced for a stiff challenge at the brand new, ultra-modern U Arena.
It can be safely assumed that Stander, who captained Munster to an encouraging victory over Connacht at the weekend, will continue at No. 8 against Racing with Peter O’Mahony returning to lead the side from No. 6.
However, Conor Oliver gave van Graan food for thought with his man of the match performance on the open side against Connacht, a game Chris Cloete missed.
“The two boys with me in the back-row, Conor Oliver and Jack O’Donoghue, showed the pace they have,” Stander said. “Conor comes back from a long lay-off since pre-season and gets man of the match. Jack O’Donoghue always pitches up, he has worked really hard over the last few weeks so Johann is going to have a tough job picking his side and especially in the back-row. They were everywhere and that makes it much easier for everyone else.”
With the bonus point result assured, van Graan revealed he chose to finish the Connacht game with 14 players rather than risk injury to captain O’Mahony coming off the bench.
The skipper returns to training today after a rest period.
“Peter has had two weeks off now. We need to give him that extra bit of rest and make sure he’s fresh again to lead us into Europe,” said Stander.
“He plays hard every game and leads us from the front. He needs his breaks and luckily he got one on Saturday.
“I was happy with the performance against Connacht even though we shouldn’t have given up that try at the end. I think this time we played two good halves, unlike the last two weeks. It’s good to get that behind us and be consistent going into two games in Europe.
“Against Ulster, we lost one or two leaders in the second half and a few voices were missing. A lot of boys will have learned from that and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We need to have team leaders and when we lose them we need to make sure one or two others are there to step up.”
Stander believes the value of that leadership core was underlined after a slow start to the second half against Connacht. “That was only for a short while. I think four of us looked up, me, Murr (Conor Murray), Keats (Ian Keatley) and Earlsy (Keith Earls) and we just said to each other, we can’t let happen what happened last week. So we just kicked on, to make sure we kept the ball and put them under pressure because we had the wind behind us.
“It was good to get those five tries. It’s not that we needed confidence — that was there for the last four or five weeks — it was a case of creating those opportunities and getting the tries. It was a night to try a few things, some worked and some didn’t, so hopefully we’ll push on again.”
Stander doesn’t need any reminding that, in 2015, he was captain for Munster’s first Thomond Park loss to Connacht in 29 years, so was relieved to avoid a repeat dose.
“It is something that stays with you,” he admitted.
“You can’t get over that. I remember coming back to the changing room and everyone was down. Axel wasn’t happy at all. It stays in the back of your head. I felt that if I could lead a team from the front this time, then it wouldn’t happen again. You don’t want to lose 4-0 in the interpros. Zero from four is not good enough.
“We spoke about it during the week and I said, if you want to get selected for Europe and for the Irish team, you have to win these derby games. You have to look after your own job. Hopefully we can go to Paris and push on. This is going to give us a bump and we just need to make sure that all the boys are fresh going into Sunday.”
Weekend rugby fixtures
European Champions Cup: Bath Rugby v Scarlets, The Recreation Ground, 7.45pm.
European Champions Cup: Ulster Rugby v La Rochelle, Kingspan Stadium, 1pm; Exeter Chiefs v Montpellier, Sandy Park, 3.15pm; Harlequins v Wasps, The Stoop, 5.30pm; Northampton Saints v ASM Clermont Auvergne, Franklin’s Gardens, 7.45pm; The Ospreys v Saracens, Liberty Stadium, 7.45pm.
European Challenge Cup: Worcester Warriors v Connacht, Sixways Stadium, 3pm.
European Champions Cup: Leinster v Glasgow, RDS, 1pm; Racing ’92 v Munster, U Arena, 3.15pm, RC Toulon v Benetton Rugby, Stade Felix Mayol, 1pm; Castres Olympique v Leicester Tigers, Stade Pierre Fabre, 5.30pm.
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