Saturday 24 February 2018

'We perform better under pressure' - CJ Stander urges Munster to dig deeper to plug holes

CJ Stander: We’re keeping people guessing
CJ Stander: We’re keeping people guessing
David Kelly

David Kelly

Killaloe, in Co Clare, dates to the sixth century and is built upon an impressive hill.

Unlike the intellectual titans of modern Irish life, folks back then knew better than to plan settlements upon the looming Shannon's flood plains; tragically, many locals across the bridge to the east are now learning this to their cost.

For sure, the old monks were on the money when they decided to decamp to more sustainable high ground; later, Brian Boru would reside here when Killaloe was effectively Ireland's capital.

A millennium and more after one reigning king of Munster resided upon this exact encampment, Anthony Foley's coaching crown would have perched a little more uneasily atop his furrowed brow after a meek retreat towards the high ground of home last Saturday.


At least he was on dry land unlike so many of his luckless neighbours across O'Brien's bridge; in stark contrast, the rugby side he leads so uncertainly appear to be drowning in their European qualification pool.

While last-eight aspirants Leicester - another supposed fallen European behemoth in so-called "transition", let us remember - plot a route to thrive by round five, Foley's Munster are desperately striving to survive.

After a hat-trick of defeats, each one of them in their own way as humbling as the one that preceded it, Munster, nine-point outsiders ahead of their trek to Welford Road this Sunday, are in danger of hurtling into freefall.

Before their last trip to the English midlands nine years ago, Munster were still negotiating their Odyssean journey towards European glory but that didn't stop Ronan O'Gara telling an English newspaper in no uncertain terms that they could stick their Sky Sports Premiership hype where the sun didn't shine.

The sun didn't shine that Sunday either and, as O'Gara lined up a monster 50-yard kick to win the game in the last play, vitriol seemed certain to add itself to the rain that cascaded upon him. Until...

Munster had certainty in those times.

This week, as they hesitate before definitively ruling out one out-half option, Tyler Bleyendaal, another, Ian Keatley, must attempt to extricate himself from the extremely difficult psychological plughole into which he disappeared last Saturday.

In all the fallout down south amongst supporters - some of whom strenuously contradicted their coach and insist that €50+ tickets confer heckling rights - one aspect of dishing out the booing treatment to Keatley has been missed.

How did it make the inexperienced Rory Scannell feel? The unintended consequences of the province's glaring lack of confidence and absence of leadership are deep-seated.

Bleyendaal will, according to Munster, "continue to be monitored for a tight quad and his participation in training will be reviewed as the week continues", which is hardly encouraging; nor too confirmation that BJ Botha, scrum anchor, sustained a second concussion in a month.

Donnacha Ryan's decision to call a lineout to the back was as ill-judged a call as that which ultimately saw England evicted from their own World Cup yet Scannell's poor brother, Niall, was the player left exposed.

The casualties are everywhere; on the wings, two players who could well leave the club may wonder why a game featuring a surfeit of offloading and line breaks resulted in rarely a chance for them to attack and why it just might prompt them to leave altogether.

The game-plan being devised does not seem fit for purpose any more but are Munster capable of changing horses mid-stream without sinking further below the waterline?

Last week, we asked their captain, CJ Stander, if his side were absolutely clear about what game-plan Munster were trying to deploy and his answer, even if half-hearted, was slightly unnerving.

Some supporters are confused by the game-plan. Is there clarity amongst the players?

"Yeah, yeah definitely. It is good to hear that. We know what we want to do so if we can keep everyone else guessing, that means we are doing the right job.

"We know exactly what we want to do, when we need to run, where we need to be and we just need to play our game.

"Sometimes there are a few mistakes in mental prep, boys in the wrong positions, but we need to fix that in the next few weeks and we will be flying after that."

On Saturday's evidence, the plane never got off the ground.

Afterwards, Stander's exasperation was evident as he assessed a third game in succession featuring multiple mistakes without, you feel, really touching on why well-paid professionals are dipping so far below expected standards.


"I've been talking about it for the last couple of weeks and we've got eight days to turn it around so I reckon by Tuesday, it's easy tell the boys not to make mistakes again and just concentrate on what you need to do and work from there," he says, even though recent evidence palpably suggests it is not easy.

"The boys, in fairness to them, played a great game. We made a few mistakes and they scored their tries but if we can stop those tries it would have been game on.

"You want to win all of your games and this is our first loss. There are four still to go but we need the wins to get to the quarter-final. I won't say it is in the balance but it's going to be an interesting game on Sunday.

"We as a team like the pressure. I think we perform better as a team. I know I perform better when I'm under pressure."

It seems an archaic starting point from which to plot a resurgence in fortunes; then again, it may be all they have left to work with.

"We know what we want to fix and we know what we need to do and we just need to do it now," he adds. "The coaches do their best every week.

"There are lot of boys with their heads down and a lot of boys with their heads up and they must step up and play the game we know we can play.

"It's going to be a week where we have to dig deep and look at ourselves and look at what we want to fix."

The first rule when one is sinking into a hole is to stop digging; the quality, not quantity of work, is vital. Being better when bitter doesn't cut it anymore.

Irish Independent

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