CJ STANDER HAS a system for his man-of-the-match awards, which continue to multiply as his longstanding form for Munster fails to show any signs of slowing up.
Sitting on the table in his house in Limerick are four of the vases the back row collects so regularly. But they have only a limited shelf life before going into storage.
“I move the new ones in, and the old ones go away to the garage for when I have room for them at some stage,” says the Ireland international with a smile.
His wife, Jean-Marié, likes to fill each of the vases with flowers, so part of Stander’s system is to buy four fresh bouquets every week.
“Four bunches of flowers every week. It’s costing me at this stage!”
26-year-old Stander has never taken the time to count up all of the awards he’s earned since arriving in Ireland in 2012. The fact that the Pro12 don’t track stats in this department means it would be tricky to figure out without getting into Stander’s garage.
The Munster man certainly won’t be pausing to take stock any time soon.
“One day, it’ll be good to sit down somewhere and reflect on what I’ve got and what I’ve achieved, but there’s still a lot to work to get up for.”
The likelihood is that Stander has plenty more man-of-the-match awards to gather in the coming months with Munster and Ireland, as his sheer consistency of impact on games continues to astound.
The number eight was excellent once again in Paris last weekend as Munster hammered Racing 92 on a 32-7 scoreline, although the likes of Donnacha Ryan were equally deserving of the individual honour Stander picked up.
“Simon Zebo was trying to make jokes about it, saying that I pay someone but Quinny [Alan Quinlan, now a Sky Sports analyst] wasn’t there this weekend, so he couldn’t select me!” says Stander.
Stander is happy to laugh about it all, but his determination to look forward is deadly serious. He has improved as a player with every season at Munster, while his explosion into Test match rugby with Ireland in 2016 was impressive too.
The try Stander scored at Stade Yves du Manoir, galloping over from 35 metres out and fending Chris Masoe en route, showed that he continues to grow as a player.
“Those tries, you always see boys score them and never get on the end of them [yourself],” says Stander. “The last few years, I’ve tended not to get into space a lot of times. I always get those one-metre carries over the line, those 30-centimetre ones where I don’t get a good bit of space.
“So, for me it’s a great high point and one of those tries that will probably be my best try for my career. Unless, hopefully, I get another one this week.”
Glasgow have been warned ahead of the crucial Champions Cup clash at Scotstoun on Saturday, when a win for Munster would secure them a quarter-final place.
As Racing assistant coach Ronan O’Gara pointed out post-match last weekend, the most impressive factor in the try was that Stander blocked down a Benjamin Dambielle kick and then worked his way back into the attacking line to strike on the very next phase.
Is he fitter now than ever before?
“All of us are fitter,” says Stander. “For us, it comes down to work rate. You just keep on working for each other. So, with our defence set-up the way it is, where you get off the line, it was just the right place to make the block down.
“You’ve just got to work back and the ball could have went to the other side and I wouldn’t have gotten the ball from Pete [O'Mahony]. Rory Scannell was straight on to the ball to recover, to go down and make it quick ball. Literally, it comes down to work rate.
“But I think we’re fitter too, Aled [Walters] in the S&C has put a lot of work into everyone, but also individually – what’s your specific need for your body? I’ve been here now for almost five years and they know exactly what I need fitness-wise and strength-wise. They’re on the top of their game.”
Stander’s confidence in his body is a reflection of his state of mind across the board, and his mindset mirrors that of Munster right now.
The confidence Munster carry with them at present is essential, allowing their players to perform much closer to their potential than was the case last season, when the southern province struggled for belief at crucial times.
“There’s definitely a line between arrogance and confidence,” says Stander when asked about the contrast between this season and last.
“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, Fla, Felix, and Jacques - [they say to] just go out there, get yourself into battles, win those battles, and after that just enjoy it.
“That’s something we’ve bought 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. As long as you don’t do something and just go half-hearted.”
The mentions of Munster’s backroom team, from head of athletic performance Aled Walters through to the coaching staff are pertinent, for they too are performing with excellence at the moment.
Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber have deservedly garnered credit for their impact after arriving last summer, but the inexperienced Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones have been doing fine work too.
“Felix is a perfectionist,” says Stander of the province’s technical coach. “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!
“For a guy who played only 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.”
Flannery, meanwhile, has taken on greater responsibility with the forwards since Anthony Foley’s death, extending his workload beyond the scrum duties – which have led to an excellent Munster scrum.
“He works hard, he makes sure he’s the best, he’s got confidence in his work,” says Stander of the former Ireland hooker. “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.
“He works very well with the props. He spends extra time with them, so that maybe if someone from the edge of the squad is coming in, he’ll make sure he’s on par with everyone else. You can’t take away his knowledge, and he gives that to a lot of players.”
– First published 06.30
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