Stander passionate about Ireland jersey after first camp under Schmidt

The Munster number eight was at Carton House earlier this week for a pre-Six Nations gathering.

STILL SPORTING A bruised eye and a couple of stitches after an unfortunate blow to the face last weekend against Ulster, CJ Stander strolls around the table of assembled journalists to shake hands with everyone present.

The Munster captain has made a habit of it, joking that he wants to build relationships so he can avoid any uncomfortable questions.

CJ Stander Stander is still baring the scars of last weekend. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

This week, most of the interest lies around Stander’s first involvement in an Ireland camp. With the South Africa native having qualified to play for Ireland last November under the three-year residency rule, Joe Schmidt called him up at the first available opportunity.

It was a 24-hour camp at Carton House at the start of a vital week for Munster, but 25-year-old Stander was thrilled to get the opportunity.

“It was good, it was good to get in the group and I was very excited going up there,” said Stander in Limerick yesterday. “It’s something I worked for and work towards. It was good to get up there and meet all the players and coaches in a different environment.

I’ve got the foot in there, but I’m not in the group yet. I have to work hard in the next few matches to get in there.”

Stander says he was nervous on the drive to Maynooth on Sunday night, heading into unfamiliar territory as he was, but explains that the more experienced heads in a squad of close to 50 players helped him to feel at home.

Having been limited only to extremely brief words with Schmidt following Munster games in the recent past, Stander also had an opportunity for a slightly more detailed briefing from the Ireland head coach at Carton House.

“We had a quick chat about what I need to fix and what I need to do,” said Stander. “It was good to get that feedback because it’s the same feedback I get from Axel and them [the Munster coaches].

“There’s a similarity and it’s something I need to work on. I know what I need to fix.”

CJ Stander Stander's form this season has been excellent. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Stander’s involvement in this Irish camp and the likelihood that the former South Africa U20 captain will be capped by Schmidt in 2016 has drawn some negative response from those who argue against the residency rule.

By and large, the feeling towards Stander playing for Ireland is one of goodwill and excitement. Any mention the Munster man makes of playing for Ireland is laced with what comes across as a deep passion.

“I’m a passionate guy, so I have passion in everything I do,” said Stander. “I love playing rugby in the first place and I try to be the best I can be in that jersey. The Irish jersey is something I’m very passionate about, also the Munster jersey.

If I get that chance, I’m going to represent it as best I can. If I don’t get into groups, I know I’m going to need to work for it. That’s a good drive to have I reckon.”

Watching Stander go head-to-head with Ireland’s incumbent number eight Jamie Heaslip at Thomond Park just after Christmas was fascinating, the pair of them taking it in turns to make impressive contributions.

They would probably deny it openly, but there was certainly an extra bite from both men in that win for Leinster. Heaslip raised his game and Schmidt will expect that to be a constant as Stander continues to keep the heat on.

Ireland name their Six Nations squad later this month, but Stander must now focus in on helping his Munster side to resurrect their European season. They begin a run of three consecutive Champions Cup games on Saturday against Stade Français in Paris.

CJ Stander dejected Munster's run of defeats weighed heavily on Stander. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The win over Ulster last weekend ended a run of five defeats in a row for Munster, and Stander nods when the suggestion is made that a certain pressure has been lifted.

“I remember Francis [Saili] mentioned there was a monkey on our backs, but it felt like someone took a skyscraper off my shoulders,” said Stander of the Ulster win.

“As a captain of any team you don’t want to lose and I take a lot of pressure on myself, how to fix stuff or where to fix it. But in fairness the players always have my back, and the coaches also. As a group we want to win and I want to lead that charge, so it was great to get the win up there. My eye didn’t feel unbelievable but it was good to get the win.”

The sense of relief is obvious among the players, while Anthony Foley will have shared in the feeling too.

The Munster head coach has faced extensive criticism throughout Munster’s bad run of form, but Stander says his dealings with the players were never affected.

“He’s always the same; he’s Axel you know? He never shows a smile, he never shows a frown on his face. If you walk into his office, you talk to him about the games. He never shows you he has pressure, but you can just think he has pressure on himself.

“We said to him this weekend that we owe each other something, we owe each other respect and we owe the coaches respect, and we came through it. We need to play for each other going into the next few weeks.”

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