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'That is special, not a lot of guys get the opportunity to wear that'

After a brief taste of life with the Lions, CJ Stander is focused on winning with Munster.

WHILE A GROUP of 14 players have got Lions training underway at the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales this week, the majority of the squad remain on play-off duty with their clubs and provinces.

CJ Stander is among that second group of players as he prepares for Munster’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final against the Ospreys on Saturday, but the powerful back row did get a taste of what the Lions will entail last week.

The 2017 British  Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand squad photo Middle row, third from the right. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The entire squad met for ‘Messy Monday,’ going through various administrative duties, having team meetings and – most importantly – getting their official Lions training gear and clothing.

Amidst the bountiful jackpot of stash, Stander says he had two favourites.

“The nicest thing was the cuff links and the pocket squares; I have never had a few pocket squares, so that was quite nice.

“All the bags, all your gear has your name on it on the side, so I have ‘CJ S’ on the side. It is always going to be mine, that is special.

“One day when, hopefully, I have a daughter or son they can wear it our somewhere or I can just keep it in my closet. That is special, not a lot of guys get the opportunity to wear that.”

Of course, all the gear is a side dish for Stander, even if it does signify the fact that he is going to be a Lion. The meat of the experience will be lining out for Warren Gatland’s side in New Zealand, with the first match of the tour now just over three weeks away.

While Stander didn’t grow up dreaming of playing for the Lions, he recalls watching the 2009 tour and admiring the scale of it all.

“I remember watching them, the first memory was Pretoria in 2009 and that’s what I saw – it was like an elite club.

“At that stage, I thought I’m not getting in there, that’s probably the best of the best in the northern hemisphere or in the world, just the way they mixed together, that camaraderie, it was the place you wanted to be.

CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong Stander with fellow Ireland international Tadhg Furlong. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Last Monday was special, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had collecting gear, fitting on everything. I tried on everything, I took it all in because not everyone gets a chance to get there.”

Stander says he could already feel the beginning of a bond forming in the 41-man squad when they assembled in London last week, even though he hadn’t properly met so many of his team-mates before.

Getting onto the pitch in the Test matches will be his central focus, of course, but Stander is also looking forward to making new friends on tour.

“Anyone that likes farming or hunting, probably not the lads who play golf!” says Stander of who he reckons he’ll bond with. “I don’t play golf at all, so I think it will be someone with similar interests to me.

“One for sure will be Rory Best, but I will try and suss the other boys out.”

Stander has been back on Munster duty since that teaser of a day on ‘Messy Monday’ and he understands the importance of not letting his thoughts wander back onto the upcoming Lions tour.

“You have to put it out of your mind,” says Stander. “I think because this weekend we have a semi-final, we have to get through that and hopefully get into the final, so you need to put it out of your head.

“It’s in the back of the head now and I think a lot of boys are concentrating on playing semis and finals. Especially myself, I want to concentrate on Munster now because I’ve never been there.”

Stander will be a key influence on Saturday as Munster look to book their place in the Pro12 final by beating the Ospreys in Limerick.

CJ Stander Stander wants to help Munster into a Pro12 final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He happily reports that his ankle, which had made him a doubt for the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens, has not got the “bounce back in it.” Though Stander played in that Sarries clash, he was clearly not at 100%.

“I wouldn’t say that on the day, but when I looked back I was heavily strapped. It was heavy, I was strapped in a position where it was just going forwards not going sideways, not that I step anyway.

“It was probably not 100%. It was close to it but after that I got a few days to concentrate on the ankle, all the small niggles. All of them are away now, it’s the first time in a long time I’ve had that at the end of the season.”

Stander’s fine health is good news for Munster but certainly the opposite for the visiting Ospreys, who ran the southern province close at Thomond Park in the Pro12 semi-finals just two years ago.

Number eight Stander has some hairy memories from that 21-18 defeat, and believes Munster will have learned from the experience.

“I remember giving an intercept pass from the base of a scrum to Rhys Webb,” says Stander. “We had a move for a couple of weeks that we thought would work. I called it and Rhys just ran in under the posts. I felt bad for about 10 minutes after that.

“I mean, you are playing in a semi-final and that was an easy seven points for them.  I remember being very tired in that game. I remember walking and them scoring that try. It gave me a good kick up the hole really.

“I was walking and I should have been close enough to make a difference there. So that was the biggest thing from that game.

“I need to get myself prepared mentally and physically for the game this weekend so I can play for the full 80 and not leave it to a TMO call like that game. I think I nearly had a heart attack watching that play back.”

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