From one do-or-die scenario to the next, knockout rugby returns to Thomond Park on Saturday as Munster aim to put their Champions Cup semi-final exit behind them and return to the Guinness PRO14 title bid.
The visit of Edinburgh to Limerick this weekend will sharpen that focus but recovery from a disappointing exit in European competition is easier said than done. In his six seasons as a Munster player CJ Stander has grown accustomed to the mental battle of rebounding from adversity and has fine-tuned the process of making peace with defeats in big games at the business end of campaigns.
The Ireland No. 8 has also made a point of reminding himself about the pain of previous setbacks, not only the loss to Racing 92 in Bordeaux but also the memories of not even reaching the knockout stages in either Europe or the league, as was the case as recently as 2015-16.
“When it is going well you forget about those days but when it gets tough again it is fresh in your mind,” Stander said. “It wasn’t easy. It is a tough place to be. You have to dig deep in yourself.”
Stander, 28, had a chance to recharge the batteries with a weekend off following the return from Bordeaux, he and 13 other starters from Stade Chaban-Delmas rested by Johann van Graan for last Saturday’s regular-season finale at home to Ulster.
The downtime did little to erase the memory of the awful opening quarter when Racing struck with three tries and essentially sealed their place in the final inside 20 minutes. Munster rallied to a 27-22 defeat but it was too little too late.
“It was a long week, a lot of soul searching and looking at what went wrong. The positive what was what went right in the second half for us. We’re in a job where there is a lot of high pressure. You can’t dwell too long on your mistakes. For me personally, I’ve had a lot of losses. I think I learned a lot in rugby. Four years ago we didn’t even qualify. I learned a lot then about how to work with the head and make sure that you enjoy those times. It was a loss but you have to make peace with it because come Monday, you have to train well.”
Addressing one’s mistakes is for Stander an essential part of the healing process.
“So we came back (from Bordeaux) on Sunday night. We had the whole of Monday off. You can probably look at yourself and the review of what you did wrong and did well in the game. Those reviews are always the toughest ones because a lot of people are honest. That’s really what you need in this job – you need honesty and coaches are always honest with us. We see what we did wrong. You can’t start like that at all. 24-3 down in the first half, you’re never going to come back. We did it (started badly) against Leinster in Thomond Park in the PRO14 (on December 26) and we were disappointed again.
“It’s like an addiction. You need to put your hand up and say ‘I wasn’t good enough and I didn’t do this good enough.’ And deal with it yourself first and then you can look at other people in the process. You have to put your hand up and say you were wrong.”
There is an argument that given the mid-season change to the coaching ticket, with Rassie Erasmus quitting his post as director of rugby and Johann van Graan joining from the South African national team as the new head coach in November, that Munster over-achieved by reaching a Champions Cup semi-final. Stander is hesitant to endorse that viewpoint.
“I think (van Graan) came into a very difficult place. It’s tough for anyone to come into any job halfway, without knowing people or without knowing the structure.
“But saying that he knows that, we know that. This is Munster. We want to be in those finals and a have a chance to win it. We knew it was going to be a tough job.We spoke about it. We as players spoke about it.
“No, I wouldn’t say it was an over-achievement. We still had massive goals for the season and it was quite disappointing not to reach them.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved