Monday 26 September 2016

Quiet man Stander out to raise the volume as Munster pursue new memories

Published 10/12/2015 | 02:30

Munster's CJ Stander
Munster's CJ Stander

Sport never likes to concede that dynasties will end. And so it invented transition.

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Transition means that, just as the days and weeks and games and seasons unfurl from one into the other, there is always a sense of a team going somewhere having been somewhere else.

Sometimes transition seems never-ending - like, will Jedward ever grow old? - indeed, sometimes it feels as if it's going nowhere at all - Manchester United, anyone? - but we know it must have some sense of an ending or a beginning.

Perhaps all we can say is that transition should start at the end of something and end with the beginning of something else.

For Munster, the transition began in 2011 when their last major trophy win more significantly coincided with a first failure to make European play-offs in 13 years.

As coaches have gone, come and gone, then come again, the transition shows little sign of ending.

Leadership was a prominent factor in building the Munster dynasty; in the professional era alone, the names are a roll-call of greatness: Wood, Galwey, O'Connell, O'Gara.

Paul O'Connell's retirement and other factors this term - Peter O'Mahony's devastating injury, Felix Jones' wretched retirement - have ceded a vast void in leadership terms.

South African CJ Stander, who will surely debut for Ireland in the 2016 Six Nations, is the latest on-field attempt to engineer a substantial breakthrough as the coaching staff struggles to maintain its footing on the European stage.

The problem with transition, though, is that it is always predicated on what went before as much as what happens next.

Anthony Foley is speaking about big-name overseas signings and current IRFU thinking but the subject is inextricably linked to leadership.

"You learn from your peers, don't you? You see good habits. You understand that. You understand what it takes to play international rugby," he says.

"I think Munster were lucky for the last number of years to have the stalwarts they had around the team, the O'Callaghans, the O'Connells.

"People who have built their way up and shown good habits to younger players, but you need to fill that void with experienced, overseas players sometimes.

"That is where the Mark Chisholms of this world come into it. The Jimmy Williamses, the John Langfords, they bring in a different viewpoint, a different way of doing the same thing."

Combined with leadership abilities honed since his teenage years, a decade and more of captaincy, allied to his irrepressible rugby ability, renders Stander the perfect candidate for the provincial captaincy.

Reminded of the past, and how O'Gara, O'Connell et al would assume control in European weeks, Stander (25) impressively seeks to focus on the present rather than the history or the future.

"You always looked up to those boys during these weeks," he acknowledges. "They led the charge, but now it is dropped.

"We are a young group as you all probably know, so there is a new leaders group and it is upon me and a lot of the leaders to drive these standards.

"That is the thing we drove from Monday into training. We need to drive the standards."

Most players speak about "leading by example" with all the passion of reciting a Chinese food order but Stander is genuine in his desire.

"I don't like a lot of talking. I just want to show them and that is how I try to drive the standards. That is how, as a team, we are going forward this week."

Despite the focus on a huge six weeks of rugby, it is, in fairness, virtually impossible for the No 8 not to feel the slightest brush of history's hand upon his shoulders.

"It's totally different," he says of this experience of captaincy. "There's a big step up for me as a leader.

"It's just the history of the club, the boys before me who captained the side, and what they achieved.

"I said to myself, 'I need to lead by example,' play as good as I can, train as good as I can and they'll follow me."

Sometimes, of late, he has looked behind him, though, and saw nobody; one wonders if the burden of leadership can inhibit as much as it can inspire? Can history smother the present?

"We're a young group and there's a lot of new faces, young guys in the squad," he explains.

"We spoke as a group about wanting to create our own legacy and win stuff. You can't look back on what they did in '06 and '08.

"It's not the same people, there's a few of those players coaching now.

"For me, it's not a burden at all captaining Munster, it's a huge challenge because it brings a different level to my game, where I lead the team by the way I play.

"I just need to be more vocal now but there's a lot of boys stepping up. So we have a good group, a good core group that leads the team."

A team that needs to create memories for the moment, unburdened by so many from the past.

Irish Independent

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