To say the weight has been lifted from CJ Stander’s shoulders by the end of Munster’s losing streak would be underplaying the relief the province’s captain is feeling as he heads to Paris.
After five defeats in a row, Munster finally rediscovered the winning feeling last weekend with a rare Pro12 victory at Ulster, the perfect fillip as the Reds turn their attention to a win-or-bust Champions Cup test against French champions Stade Francais this Saturday.
And nobody felt the pressure release more than the No 8 and stand-in skipper.
“I remember Francis (Saili) mentioned there was a monkey on our backs, but it felt like someone took a skyscraper off my shoulders,” said Stander said.
“As a captain of any team, you don’t want to lose and I take a lot of pressure on myself, how to fix stuff or where to fix it. But in fairness the players always have my back, and the coaches also. But as a group we want to win and I want to lead that charge. It was great to get the win up there.”
There will be no respite for Stander as he prepares for another stiff challenge, this time at Stade Jean-Bouin, where he will go head-to-head with Stade Francais’s talismanic Italy captain Sergio Parisse.
“You’re going to have to look after him. He’s been a great leader for Italy, he’s been playing unbelievable for Stade, and you never know what he’s going to do. He’s always around the ball, always scoring tries and he’s a guy you look at in the videos.
“When I was younger I probably looked at him playing and it’s good to go up toe-to-toe with him, to see where you stand, because he’s probably the best player in that jersey in the world.
“It’s good to get that going into the match, he’s unbelievable. You’re never sure if he’s going to pass or kick or something else. He’s one of the best players in that jersey in the world.”
If things go to plan for Stander, he could well be facing Parisse at Test level when Ireland host Italy in the Six Nations on March 12.
The Munster captain, who qualified for Ireland in November after three years of residency, got his first taste of the Joe Schmidt setup at the weekend when he was called up to Carton House as part of a 48-man squad for a 24-hour Ireland camp. With that major objective accomplished, the next step is to get recognition in the narrower panel for the opening games against Wales and France next month.
“It was good, it was good to get in the group and I was very excited going up there. It’s something I worked for and work towards. It was good to get up there and meet all the players and coaches in a different environment.
“I’ve got the foot in there, but I’m not in the group yet. When the next group comes out, I’d have to work hard in the next few matches to get in there... and now I know what to expect and what I need to work on to get into the next group hopefully.”
Stander admitted being “very nervous” as the new guy, but the small amount of feedback he received from head coach Schmidt gave him a clear and familiar list of things to work on to achieve Test status.
“We didn’t really sit down, there was a lot of guys. We had a quick chat about what I need to fix and what I need to do. It was good to get that feedback because it’s the same feedback I get from Axel (Munster head coach Anthony Foley) and them. There’s a similarity and it’s something I need to work on. I know what I need to fix.
“The Irish jersey is something I’m very passionate about, also the Munster jersey. If I get that chance, I’m going to represent it as best I can. If I don’t get into groups, I know I’m going to need to work for it. That’s a good drive to have, I reckon.”
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