CJ Stander has earned plaudits for his captaincy of Munster in trying times but the last throes of the season are set to bring different issues for his leadership as the race for European qualification goes down to the wire.
Starting with Friday night’s visit of sixth-placed Edinburgh to Musgrave Park, Munster have two games to leapfrog the Scots and secure a top-six finish that will guarantee a Champions Cup place for next season. Scarlets, in fifth, are the final-round visitors to Thomond Park on Saturday, May 7 but after successive defeats to Leinster and Connacht and a slide to seventh place, Friday’s clash in Cork is the first and very significant hurdle to cross. Despite leading sides from his schoolboy days in South Africa, Stander, who has been minding the captaincy in the long-term absence of Peter O’Mahony, is in new territory but remains unfazed.
“I have never played to just secure a position before. It is pressure, but luckily, we know what we need to do. We know where we want to be this year and also next year. When you take things on as a group, you can spread the pressure. The pressure is on the players, we have to go onto the pitch, we are the ones who can change it.
“You cannot go into these games with the attitude that you cannot lose. Edinburgh are going to come out looking to win the game, so we need to match that attitude. They are ahead of us in the league. We want to be where they are. We have not been in this position before, but it is also exciting to play with the talent we have. There is not a lot of people who are going to back us, so we need to back ourselves as a group. We are looking forward to Friday night.”
Stander, 26, does not feel isolated in his leadership role and aside from the support he receives from Munster’s leadership group within the squad, the Ireland back rower also said he gains strength from wife, Jean-Marie, his family and retired Munster legend Paul O’Connell.
“The leadership group I have around me is good. Players like Conor Murray, Keith Earls, and Billy Holland are all there for me. If I have a problem, my wife and family are there for me. It might sound weird to talk about rugby with them, but that can be a good thing too. ”
O’Connell may have left the province at the end of last season but he appears ready to assist his old team-mate and Stander said he had spoken recently to the man he credits with saving his career during a difficult introduction to life in Ireland.
“He is someone you can just call and ask a question of. He is good to bounce ideas off. He is there to talk to you. It is great to sit down with someone like that. You don’t always get that opportunity. That is the type of man he is. He wants to sit down with you, he wants to know what is going on and that is massive for me. When I arrived here, he was an icon, he still is, so it is good to get learnings from a guy like that who has been at the top for his entire career. It is good to have someone like that.”
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