Stander relishing chance to stake claim for Irish spot
Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30
There is some suspicion when CJ Stander settles himself down after his first Ireland involvement sporting a black and blue eye and a swollen cheek.
However, the damage wasn't a 'welcome to international rugby' from one of his new Ireland rivals, but a souvenir from the Kingspan Stadium and he is happy enough to have it after stopping their losing run.
From Belfast, Stander made his way to Carton House and experienced his first Ireland camp under Joe Schmidt.
Since moving from Pretoria in 2012, the South African has consistently spoken of his desire to adopt a different shade of green after serving his time under the World Rugby residency laws.
"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," he said.
"I've got the foot in there, but I'm not in the group yet. When the next (squad) comes out, I've have work hard in the next few matches to get in there.
"It was good to get in there, to see the environment. It's very goal-driven, very focused, a lot of detail. It's good 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."
Up until now, Stander's interactions with Joe Schmidt have been limited and, while he said they didn't sit down for a formal one-on-one session during the 24-hour camp in Kildare, he does have a firm idea of what the head coach wants from him.
"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," he said.
"It was good to get that feedback because it's the same feedback I get from Axel and them. There's a similarity and it's something I need to work on. I know what I need to fix."
While the project player system has come in for criticism, Stander (right) is in no doubt about where his loyalties lie.
"I'm a passionate guy, so I have passion in everything I do. I love playing rugby in the first place and I try to be the best I can be in that jersey. The Irish jersey is something I'm very passionate about, also the Munster jersey," he said.
"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."
While the Six Nations is top of the agenda, the three-Test tour of South Africa is a personal target.
"If I get the opportunity or a chance to play against them, it's something that I've been looking forward to for the last three years. It would be a bit easier anyway, because I can understand their calls," he said with a wry smile.
Before all that is the small matter of Munster's visit to Paris this weekend to revive their European season.
While Donnacha Ryan looks unlikely to be fit in time as he continues to recover from his knee injury, Anthony Foley should be able to call on Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Dave Foley and Andrew Conway who missed the win at Ravenhill and Rory Scannell who suffered a dead leg during that game.
The victory has lifted a huge weight off the squad who had gone five games without a win beforehand and, as captain, Stander felt it more than most.
"I remember Francis (Saili) mentioned there was a monkey on our backs, but it felt like someone took a skyscraper off my shoulders," he 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. My eye didn't feel unbelievable but it was good to get the win.
"The last four of five weeks has been tough.
"Training, it doesn't matter. No one is used to losing especially in the Munster jersey. You need to win every week, it's expected from you, from everyone.
"Getting the win up in Ulster, we had to work hard. We made mistakes but it was good to get the result. Nine points, Keats stepped up, all the boys put up.
"Defensively we were very good, they scored one try and we said we didn't want them to score tries, but we came back from that and stepped up.
"And it's great to get that win going into the next few weeks because it's Europe and it's cup rugby from here on in."