'It's costing me at this stage' - CJ Stander on the money he spends to house all his Man of the Match awards
Ireland international is driving standards in Munster revival and collecting the gongs along the way, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
If he was playing in France they'd have come up with a nickname for CJ Stander by now. Something like Monsieur le Man of the Match.
On an almost weekly basis, the South African-born Ireland international arrives back to the Munster dressing room carrying with him the reward for his performances. It's become a running joke, but it's one that he rightly takes pride in.
Last year, he picked up the players' and writers' player of the year awards to go with the Munster gong he successfully defended. The collection is growing and he has developed a system to keep the mantelpiece from getting cluttered with the medals and vases that are thrown his way.
It's even started to cost him money.
"I move the new ones in, the old ones go away to the garage for when I have room for them," the back-row says with his trademark broad smile. "Normally, Jean-Marie (his wife) likes to fill them with flowers so I've started a system where I need to buy four bunches of flowers because there is four on the table at all times.
"Four bunches of flowers every week, it's costing me at this stage.
"When you get an award like that, you just enjoy it. One day they'll start to dry up and when you're 32 or 33 you'll be wondering, 'Where did they go?' (Simon) Zebo was trying to make jokes about it, saying that I pay someone but Quinny (Alan Quinlan) wasn't there this weekend, so he couldn't select me!
"I look after them. One day it'll be good to sit down somewhere to look back on what I've got and what I've achieved, but there's still a lot to work for us and to get up for."
First on the list is the trip to Glasgow this Saturday as Munster look to book their place in the last eight of the European Champions Cup for the first time in three seasons. For the past two seasons, they have failed to live up to the high standards set by past custodians of the red jersey but under Rassie Erasmus they have hit a vein of form that has seen them enter 2017 in a position of power.
Top of Pool 1 after their comprehensive dismissal of Racing 92 and clear leaders of the Guinness Pro12, there is a note of optimism around the province's University of Limerick base and after two seasons of struggling Stander is keen for the team to press home their advantage.
"It'd be a huge boost for us," he said of reaching the quarter-finals.
"When you don't get there for two years it's like taking a dessert away from me having dinner, you're going to struggle with it. You look forward to it, and you don't get it ... it'd be a boost.
"It just excites me the next few games, these are the games you prepare for and you look forward to as a youngster, and, yeah, it is going to be tough, I'm not going to lie about it, but it's exciting you know, you have to test yourself week in, week out, you have to be consistent and pitch up.
"Because if you don't pitch up, in a European game or a Test match, you're going to be shown your weaknesses.
"I'd normally say you take it week by week, but when you get two weeks like this when you get so much on the line it's the biggest game of the season so far.
"You can see it as a semi-final almost or a quarters. If you lose, you're in a place where you're going to have to struggle or play a lot more rugby to be happy with yourself."
Although the raw hurt that followed the tragic passing of Anthony Foley may have been the initial spur, the two-time champions appear to have long since moved past relying on emotion. Instead, they have become a well-oiled, clinical machine who are implementing a simple, but effective game-plan in which they have plenty of belief.
And the run of 11 wins in 12 games means they are bouncing into UL for training and relishing the upcoming big games.
"You can take a lot out of the games," Stander said of the run. "We work hard for each other. It's a good feeling, the last few years, after we lost... at one stage... five in a row, you get to a stage when everyone is looking at the stuff we're doing wrong, not the stuff we're doing right.
"So, I think the way Axel gave us to play, the way Rassie bought into the game-plan, Fla (Jerry Flannery), Felix (Jones), and Jacques (Nienaber) - just say, 'Go out there, get yourself into battles, win those battles, and after that just enjoy it'.
"That's something we've brought in, just a bit of enjoyment in the game. Just to try something, if you try your best and it doesn't work well, then you can't see that as a negative."
While Erasmus and Nienaber have garnered plaudits, Stander paid tribute to the two home-grown coaches remaining on the Munster roster for their influence.
"Felix is a perfectionist. Everything has to be perfect on his side so we're prepared for the week ahead, he's passionate, he'll start talking in a meeting and he'll get so passionate you can feel it on a Monday, and you're almost ready to play," he said. "For a guy who played a year ago, he's one of the top coaches I've worked with. He's got a good balance between coaching players and being friends with them, guiding them, especially with younger guys.
"Fla is Jerry Flannery. He works hard, he makes sure he's the best, he's got confident in his work, so we're prepared and can go out there and do our best at the weekend.
"He's energetic, he's always been the same - I didn't know him as a player, but he seems the same - everything has to be the best, and that brings the best out of all the players."
As the perennial man of the match, Stander is front and centre of the organisation but it is clear from listening to him that the place is a well-oiled machine this season.
The Ireland flanker will continue to drive it forward, collecting new vases and keeping the florists of Limerick in business as he goes.