Saturday 21 October 2017

A return to basics for back-row after dream Lions tour

The Big Interview: CJ Stander

CJ Stander turns his focus to Munster after the summer Lions Tour. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander turns his focus to Munster after the summer Lions Tour. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Ireland had never beaten the formidable All Blacks before November and that unforgettable Saturday in Chicago, but now two of Munster's Irish internationals have done the double.

Conor Murray and CJ Stander starred for the British & Irish Lions during their tour to New Zealand in June and July. And although the latter didn't make it off the replacements' bench for that 24-21 history-making victory, he still returned with a glorious new outlook.

The 27-year-old South African has been an inspirational figure in Munster's back-row in recent seasons, and in 2016 he became the first player to claim back-to-back Munster Player of the Year awards.

Prior to this summer the George native had amassed 98 appearances for Munster between the PRO12 and Europe, and he also notched up 15 caps for his adopted country, but something was missing.

Stander travelled to New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions - an unbelievable feat considering coaches at home told him he was too small to be a Springbok - and when he returned he had much more to show for his tour than the six appearances he garnered wearing the other red jersey.

"You need to take your job seriously, and rugby is mine, but you need to enjoy it as well. You never know when you are going to get these chances again," said Stander.

"You need to enjoy the small things, the friendships, the games and the time spent with the boys, and the coaching and the supporters. You have to enjoy and take it on board.

"Normally we are so switched on for games and training that they just slip by. I learned to cut back and go out there and play the way I wanted to play when I was seven years old.

"I learned how to deal with stress off the pitch, rugby wise, and I learned a lot from different players. I made a lot of friends and people I always looked up to as rugby players and people.

"People think of rugby as a squad thing. They think you can talk to everyone around you, but sometimes you can be struggling with something on your own.

"As soon as you start talking and expressing how you feel, you can be a bit stressed and tired after a game, but other guys have even worse troubles.

"On tour I learned to just sit down and relax and talk about things in my life."

Experiences

It was a massive, eye-opening, couple of months for the former South Africa U-20 captain. And he is delighted to bring his new experiences back into the Munster set-up.

Now, as he prepares to lead Munster into a rather uncertain period with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber on the way out, Stander is basking in what has been a superb year on the playing field.

"When I arrived here I didn't really think I was going to make it, but after a few years playing and people talking about the Lions it makes you feel that there is a chance and opportunity there," said Stander.

"When I was selected it was massive. It was big for me as a player who was playing for the last few years in Europe. You really want to be part of the best and it was great.

"To beat New Zealand again was unreal, there's not a lot guys who can say that they have beaten New Zealand twice in 12 months.

"It was a great tour, I really enjoyed the time with the players off the pitch and on the pitch also. And to be pulling on the Irish jersey on a regular basis is a great honour for me and surely for my family and everyone who supports me too."

Things go back to square one for the ex-Blue Bulls man, and after the roller-coaster that was 2016-17, he will hope to aid his fellow team-mates through the transitionary time ahead.

"Every year brings new challenges and a new fresh feel to it, it's like going to school again. There is a lot of new faces, a lot of guys coming through from the academy," said Stander.

"It's good to see that because that's the end result, you want people to come through the ranks, and you want them to learn from the experienced players like Jaco Taute.

"There's new players in the senior side that I'm working with in the last few weeks. It's exciting and it's exactly what we needed for the next two or three years. It's good to see them becoming part of the Munster family.

"And with the coaching team changing, the good thing is that the players have always had a voice as a leadership group. We have worked very closely with the coaches and the management squad. We know exactly what's going on all the time.

"It's really player-driven, the coaches Rassie and Jacques have done an unbelievable job. They have given us the tools we need to go on and perform.

"We still have still have the help from Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, and George Murray, he is also big into the analysis of games and stuff.

"There's not a lot of pressure on us. We have all been playing at high levels in the last few years. We know what you need to do to win or compete for a cup.

"And we are proud of Rassie and Jacques because they are going to posts that were created for them. It just shows their calibre.

"It also shows the size of Munster Rugby that we could sign those two guys. Munster is one of the best set-ups in the world."

Irish Independent

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