Big Interview: CJ Stander
'The boys showed me the ropes – now I'm part of furniture'
South African fighting fit and determined to prove his worth to the Munster faithful.
After such a promising start to his Munster career with two tries in his first start, CJ Stander had a right to be frustrated when his dream debut ground to a halt with a broken finger.
So, it is no surprise that he is now devouring his minutes on the field and Munster fans are finally seeing what the big South African has to offer.
Originally from the city of George, midway between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in South Africa's Western Cape, moving camp to the banks of the Shannon in Limerick came as a bit of a shock to the former U-20 Springboks captain.
Facing headlong into an Irish winter with his hand in a cast meant time moved slowly for Stander, but he says his heart was warmed by watching Munster from the terraces.
"It was difficult to settle, the first four months were long, especially after suffering the broken finger, but after that the boys really pulled me in and showed me the ropes. Now I feel like I am part of the furniture here," he says.
"I was here for Christmas last year and me and my wife had family over. But it was great for me to go to Thomond Park and watch all the Heineken Cup games. Being on the crowd's side gives you a lot of respect for the Munster support.
"That also showed me what a strong tradition and what a big support structure Munster has. Sitting in that stand to watch those games was unbelievable. I have never seen support like that in my life," says the 23-year-old back-row.
Despite an interrupted season, Stander's stats make for remarkable reading. The 18 stone, 6ft 2ins speedster made just three starts for the first team, but still managed to bag four tries along the way and played a key role for Munster 'A' after missing out on the Heineken Cup squad.
He admits the European way of playing the game shocked him at first, but under the guidance of Rob Penney, he is happier in his skin now with four starts in a row.
"The year was good, but changing from southern to northern hemisphere rugby was difficult for me. The type of game plan here and the type of rugby all the teams play here is a big difference compared to back home, but Rob and all the coaches took me through it all," he says.
"They helped me a lot and helped me get to know the game here. I think I'm settled now, I know what's going on and I know what's being asked of me every week, how to play.
"But it has been really good for me to have a few starts in a row. In the last few weeks I've played at No 8, which is my favourite position. And last week I played at No 7. It was good to get a few good runs out on the pitch.
"It was great to be able to settle myself. It was difficult for me last season, not playing too much with the injury, but this year has been very good. I'm injury-free and it's all good for me now."
Forcing his way into the Munster first team has not come without plenty of hard work. A naturally destructive runner, Stander was at times criticised for his defensive duties, while his desperation to make an impact at the breakdown saw him cough up handfuls of penalties. That's all changed though.
"I think my breakdown work and defence work have improved. I have worked a lot on that; I needed to be a bit more physical in the contact area. In my game play, Munster have a great game plan, so I have worked quite a bit on my skills, when I get a loose ball, I want to get over the try line," he says.
"My discipline has definitely improved. I got a yellow card against Cardiff, but we were on a team warning and I was the unlucky one there. I think I have only given away two or three penalties this year so far, which is a big improvement.
"In Munster we never want to give away penalties and easy points, so I know what is expected from me. I don't want to give away penalties and I don't want to get shouted at on a Monday morning.
"But that's the same all over the team. Guys like me were told to get their penalty count down, so all over the team we have set a standard. We we don't want to give any extras away."
But legendary Munster reputations are carved in the Heineken Cup and Stander is determined to make his mark this season, starting with Perpignan.
"In the Pro12, we are going very well – I think we have won the last six games. But going into this week, this can be our season-changer. If we can get points from this game and keep strong, win the two games and get out of the pool, who knows what could happen if we get to the quarter-finals," he says.
"We let ourselves down against Edinburgh and made it difficult for ourselves – but if we win these two games we will be back on track.
"They have got a few big boys in their team, they are a fast, physical team. They have good attack options and this is one of their strong points. They are a very good team and when we get the ball, we have to take our chances and make the most of everything.
"For sure, a couple of finals would be nice. Last year I played in the semi-finals of the B&I Cup, but we lost to Leinster 'A'.
"We have big standards here and we want to be in the play-off of the league and the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup."