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Dublin: 10°C Friday 7 May 2021

'Axel sat us down and he said, 'Remember this feeling' and walked out'

CJ Stander has returned from Ireland camp eager to help Munster end their season on a high.

IT TOOK CJ Stander a little time to adapt to life back at Munster after his first Six Nations camp with Ireland.

CJ Stander Stander is back in Munster mode. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He had kept in touch with his teammates back in Limerick while away of course, and taken the opportunity to head down the M7 when days off allowed, but Carton House was his main home for a period of seven weeks or so.

“We were often in camp on a Sunday night so the first Sunday night back and the Monday, the next night, I couldn’t really sleep because I was stressed,” says Stander with a laugh. “I felt like I needed to be somewhere!

“But yeah, it is good to get back into the groove, to get back to my wife. The toughest thing for me up in camp was leaving her for seven weeks at home on her own. I mean she is living in a nice place and is sorted with friends, but it was tough leaving her alone and it’s good to get back into the groove, back into the city, get back to my friends and family.”

The feeling is very much reciprocated by Munster’s squad, coaches and supporters. Stander scored a try in his 32-minute cameo off the bench in last weekend’s 47-0 win over Zebre, looking two or three classes above the poor opposition.

His presence for tomorrow’s vital Guinness Pro12 clash with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium [KO 5.30pm, TG4/Sky Sports] is reassuring for everyone involved with Munster.

Stander has embraced Munster’s rivalry with Leinster since arriving in Ireland back in 2012, comparing it to the heated nature of the Bulls’ relationship with the Stormers in his native South Africa.

This version of the inter-provincial derby is very different for Stander, given the aforementioned return he has made from Ireland duties. After excelling in his first five international caps, the number eight knows he will be a marked man.

“You can’t come back and not perform,” says the Munster captain of the pressure now on him as a Test player. “If you come back, you need to bring something different.

Munster’s CJ Stander scores a try Stander looked good in a try-scoring performance against Zebre. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“I wouldn’t say there is going to be a cross on you but you are playing for Irish rugby now and people are going to try to dominate you and try to get into your head and stuff. Yeah, first time going back playing against your friends, but we have a job to do and I am looking forward to it.”

Stander’s most recent memories of facing Leinster are harrowing ones, with Leo Cullen’s men winning 24-7 at Thomond Park just after Christmas in what were dark times for Munster.

The 25-year-old recalls that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Ben Te’o “just ran over us, got easy yards” that day and reflects on Garry Ringrose’s huge break to set up Isa Nacewa’s first-half try.

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Head coach Anthony Foley didn’t need to comment extensively after that depressing defeat.

I remember when we walked in, Axel sat us down and he said, ‘Remember this feeling’ and he walked out. You don’t really have to say much.

“We lost against a good Leinster side and we know that, but going up this weekend it is something that will be in the back of our heads.”

Foley’s new one-year contract extension with Munster was confirmed when Stander was away during the Six Nations, and the powerful back row says he greeted the news with pleasure.

Having struggled to fully convince Rob Penney of his starting credentials, Stander has thrived under Foley’s head coaching, leading to his appointment as captain in Peter O’Mahony’s injury-enforced absence this season.

CJ Stander Revenge over Leinster is front and centre of Stander's thoughts. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Two weeks ago I found out also,” says Stander when it’s suggested that he would have known of Foley’s extension for some months. “When I arrived here it was probably not his decision, but I didn’t really play but he always backs players if they do good so he backed me and that is good.

“The last two years for him was probably tough not getting to where we wanted to but if you stick with someone, especially with him, he knows what he wants to do, we know what he wants. I just think it is small stuff we can fix.

We always said it was small stuff to fix but it’s tough when we don’t fix it. I think next year is Axel’s year. We just need to, as we do, back him. He backs us. I’m delighted with him signing another year. It just shows that he wants to be here and that Munster want him here.”

2016/17 promises more for Munster perhaps, but Stander is intent on ensuring the current season finishes on a high. The southern province returned to the Pro12 play-off spots with last weekend’s big win over Zebre, but nothing is decided yet.

Champions Cup qualification is the clear priority of course, but Stander has always been a player who targets silverware, no matter what the circumstances are. Munster may be outsiders but Murrayfield on 28 May is still in the back of Stander’s mind.

“If you look at the table we are in the fourth spot at the moment but Glasgow has a game in hand. It’s going to be down to numbers if you get to the last game. You play the game to win stuff, to win trophies and you can’t say you are not looking for a trophy.

“We have fourth spot now, we still have got to push on for silverware at the end of the year. It will come down to numbers and will come down to this match at the weekend because if you slip up this weekend against a great Leinster side you are in trouble.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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