The boys know they need a performance tomorrow - Stander
Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30
The winds of change may be in full flight in European rugby but in Ireland, the country's two out-of-form teams go not only in search of the bragging rights but, more importantly, for a victory that would reignite seasons which are threatening to derail.
At the beginning of the campaign, the odds on Munster versus Leinster being the festive inter-pro derby with two teams struggling for form would have been generous to say the least.
Incredibly, Munster go into tomorrow evening's (5.15) clash at Thomond Park having lost four games on the bounce while the visitors have won just once in five.
With two indigenous and relatively inexperienced coaches at the helm, the pressure is mounting on both Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen.
While Munster still harbour slim hopes of making the knockout stages of the Champions Cup, Leinster face the stark reality that zero wins from their four pool games has resulted in an early exit from Europe.
Admittedly, the Blues were in the proverbial 'Pool of Death' but they found themselves there as a result of missing out on the Pro12 play-offs last season.
In most scenarios, it would be almost inconceivable to think that they'd make the same mistake this year, but given their current form, it wouldn't seem all that unlikely.
For all of both sides' recent struggles, they do currently find themselves in the top four but the natives are growing increasingly restless.
Ireland are soon set to reconvene for a training camp which means that plenty of the players on show tomorrow have an added incentive to impress the onlooking Joe Schmidt.
For CJ Stander in particular, going up against Jamie Heaslip will provide him with the perfect opportunity to get one over on the player whom he hopes to replace in the green jersey in the not too distant future.
The last few weeks have been a test of Stander's mentality as he looks to steer a seemingly sinking ship back to safer waters.
Having recently taken over the captaincy, the South African has had to adjust to his new role and it's one that he admits has been testing.
"It does change your mindset, for me especially," the powerful No 8 maintains.
"When you're an individual player, you just go, 'Oh we lost the match' and you think about yourself and what you did wrong but now I'm thinking about we did wrong in the whole week; what he said or what I said or how I've influenced someone during the week.
"It gives me a bit of pressure but on the other side, I like those pressure situations because it moulds me into what I want to be one day when I leave rugby or when I captain bigger teams."
While Simon Zebo scoffed at the notion that getting one over on his rivals for a place in the Ireland team was a motivating factor, Stander's wry smile when asked about going up against Heaslip told its own story.
"Yeah, personally it's a big match. You want to play against the best guy in the position in the country. You want to play your best. I'm just going to concentrate on the team and on myself this week.
"Last week, we didn't perform as a team and individually we also need to perform. I also need to pick up my game a bit. It's going to be a good match-up in all positions."
Stander's battle with Heaslip is just one of several fascinating sub-plots. Sean O'Brien returns and will go up against Jack O'Donoghue - another future international lying in wait.
Tommy O'Donnell will make his comeback from the bench following a five month lay-off with a hip injury but the prognosis is not as positive for the man who has filled the void while he has been out, with the news that Dave O'Callaghan is facing up to six weeks on the sidelines with an adductor problem.
The battle at the breakdown will unquestionably have a major say in which side gets that much-needed win but the out-half selections of both coaches has firmly placed the spotlight on Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Madigan.
Ian Keatley has been taken out of the firing line by Foley while Cullen has decided to rest Johnny Sexton - although there is certainly an argument to be made that he as much as Keatley could have done with the night off, given his recent poor form.
The form of both No 10s has reflected the struggles of their teams and Foley admits that it is "unusual" to have both teams coming into the game on the back of several defeats.
"I have looked very closely at Leinster over the last number of weeks. I would have had the same feeling for them, as I would for us in terms of their performances aren't being seen in their results," he suggests.
"They are a very good side packed with internationals. They're at the wrong end of it as well through this period. But from our own point of view we have got to look after our own business and make sure that we get our performance right and hope that that can lead to a result.
"I think the review (of Leicester) was a tough day for a lot of fellas. Everyone is keen for this game against Leinster and I'm sure that's the same in their camp."
Cullen has rejigged his back line with Zane Kirchner, Fergus McFadden and Garry Ringrose all coming into the starting XV.
The sight of Ringrose acting as a water boy has rightly grated Leinster supporters in recent weeks and the 20-year-old will get the chance to prove a point to Cullen when he goes up against a former All Black in Francis Saili.
"The boys know we need a performance this week and they need to pitch up," Stander insists.
"We need a win. We know that Leinster have been disappointed in the last few weeks. They're going to come firing and we need to be firing more.
"No one wants to lose four matches in a row, especially not Munster. Everyone is disappointed and is looking deep into themselves. Digging deep to see where they went wrong.
"It's more just the small mistakes, the one per cent in our game. This is the type of game that you need to put that behind you. Everyone picked themselves up on Monday.
"The coaches can give you the framework and we have that game-plan, we know what we want to do but it comes down to the players just to be aware and make those passes when the tries are on.
"It makes it frustrating because you know what you did wrong and you know what you need to fix. You can see it in front of you; you just need to go and fix it."
The Munster coaching staff and players insist that they aren't too far away from clicking; the problem for them is that Leinster believe the same. Connacht have already ended their Thomond Park hoodoo this season.
Leinster haven't won there in two years.
Something has to give under the Limerick night sky tomorrow but the home side may have just enough to sneak what could well prove to be one of the biggest wins of their season.
Munster - A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley, S Zebo; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Foley, D Ryan; R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, CJ Stander (capt).
Reps: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, B Holland, T O'Donnell, T O'Leary, R Scannell, L Gonzalez Amorosino.
Leinster - Z Kirchner; F McFadden, G Ringrose, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa (capt); I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, T Denton; D Ryan, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: J Tracy, C Healy, M Moore, R Molony, J van der Flier, N McCarthy, C Marsh, D Kearney.
REF - D Wilkinson (IRFU)
Munster v Leinster,
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