CJ STANDER FOUND himself in an unfamiliar situation last weekend as he sat at home in Limerick watching Ireland and then Munster without being injured.
“I felt like I was part of nothing last weekend,” he laughs.
The number eight was, of course, excused from duty for the Chicago excursion, instead part of a smaller group of players who worked under the watchful eye of Joe Schmidt at Carton House in the early part of the week.
It gave him the rare opportunity to put the feet up over the weekend and while still heavily invested in how his province and country fared in different parts of the world, rest and recuperate ahead of another busy block of fixtures.
Stander had already accumulated 465 minutes of game time in the first two months of the season for Munster, starting in all six of his appearances and getting through an 80-minute shift in each of those games save for his seasonal bow against Cardiff Blues.
In that sense, the rest was more than welcome.
“Yeah, I got a good rest and it was good to spend some time at home with the wife,” he continued.
“If you asked me that question [did you need the rest?] five years ago I would have said no, but as you get older for sure. You need a break whenever you can get them and enjoy them.
“Make sure you get that break and the time with your family is important and if you don’t get that during the year as well, it’s probably a place you slip.
“But weekends are game time and you want to be out there playing. The boys played so well [against Italy], some of them really put their hands up and to get the score they did was really impressive.”
Stander is understandably straining at the leash this week, and returns to Schmidt’s starting XV for Saturday’s Test against Argentina to win his 27th Ireland cap.
The 28-year-old has trained well and certainly appears in good physical condition, having dropped a few kilos and added lean muscle to his already powerful frame.
“I’ve changed a couple of things with recovery but the biggest thing I’ve done is bring in a part of pilates into my weekly routine,” he explains.
“The guy I do it with is quite good, we have a one-on-one session and he knows when I look tired and when I don’t look tired so he pushes me a bit more but I think it’s brought a bit more mobility to my body which is important as you get older.”
As well as maintaining that ability to sustain his work-rate throughout 80 minutes, Stander’s increased emphasis on mobility is seen in his added potency around the pitch.
With Schmidt’s Ireland placing huge emphasis on forwards being dynamic ball-carriers in addition to their roles in defence, at the set-piece and on the ground, Stander is part of a mobile back row that can create space and opportunities for the backline to exploit.
The return of Sean O’Brien sees the holy trinity reunited, with Peter O’Mahony joining Munster team-mate Stander in the engine room in the same pack that started against Argentina this time last year.
Stander, as ever, is relishing the physical challenge the Pumas will pose on Saturday evening.
“If you don’t match them physically in the first 10 minutes they’re going to rip you apart with their back line,” he said.
“They’re a team that can attack either side of the ball, they’ve got unbelievable backs and their physicality is the biggest thing that keeps them in the game.
For us, the boys [in the pack] can move and they can use the ball as well. That’s the thing through the whole squad and is expected from all the players, you would have seen it last week. The forwards want to be involved with the ball more than the backs.
Schmidt’s selection in the back row gives an insight into what he is potentially thinking for the marquee fixture against the All Blacks on 17 November, but nobody inside the Carton House bubble is thinking about that.
“We’re a week-to-week team and it’s a thing that has been driven home from the start, well at least since I arrived in the squad anyway,” Stander insists.
“We know that if you miss one stepping stone you’re going to fall somewhere in the water and we’ve got a lot of competition in this squad, especially this year, so if you don’t use your opportunity in the week you have and you look to a week in front of you, you’re going to miss out.
“I think we’re so busy and so concentrated on what we have this weekend that we probably don’t even have time to think about that. I know the coaches have to work on stuff like that but it’s all for us on Argentina and the game we have.”
While Stander wasn’t around the squad in 2015 for that painful World Cup defeat to the Pumas, he admits there is still hurt within the group even if some of those demons were banished 12 months ago.
“There are a few boys who played against them [in 2015] that’s still in the squad and they can talk to us and tell us how they felt,” he added. “This weekend is another big test for us, to see where we are against a southern hemisphere team, especially where we want to be going into next year.
“You need to use those memories and remember how you felt that day and what they did to you.”
And then the prospect of Ireland finishing the year as the number-one ranked team in the world is put to Stander. He smiles.
“We want to test ourselves and over the next few weeks we have an opportunity to test ourselves. The world rankings are something that are out there but going into a bigger thing next year, a World Cup, you can actually test yourself against these teams you don’t get to often and see where you are.
“Those things go up and down and if we move up great, but if we move down we have to work harder.
“There’s still a lot that can happen from here until then [World Cup], so it’s the Six Nations and then the World Cup so we still have a few stepping stones to get through.”
First up, Argentina. One step at a time.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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