MUNSTER BACK-ROWER CJ Stander has called on his team-mates to rise to the Connacht challenge this weekend as Anthony Foley’s side look to rescue their Pro12 campaign.
Munster are currently in a precarious sixth place, two spots off the play-off positions, ahead of a mouth-watering clash against Connacht at the Sportsground on Saturday night.
Both sides will be desperate to put Pro12 interpro away losses to bed — Munster to Leinster and Connacht to Ulster — from almost a fortnight ago.
And Stander has called on his team-mates to rise to the occasion on Saturday against a Connacht side who no longer approach a Munster match with trepidation.
“That fear factor that teams had before isn’t there,” Stander said.
“We can’t play on that name any more. The atmosphere up there picks them up.
“Big players like Bundee Aki get a few runs and the crowd gets behind them and you mustn’t let that get into your head.
“It’s a small stadium with a lot of noise and a lot of people… there are a lot of factors, you don’t know what the weather is going to be like.”
Connacht recorded a famous win in Limerick last November, their first since 1986. Aki’s acrobatic finish proved to be the match-winning score on that occasion and Stander admitted that result would give Munster extra motivation this weekend.
“After 29 years, yeah, they won at Thomond Park. We didn’t have the ball at all in the first half and didn’t use it when we had it in the second.
“We lacked a bit of physicality and every player knows we let ourselves down that day in Thomond Park.
“There was a lot of disappointment so there is a lot of motivation for a chance to get revenge.
“Connacht know they did a job on us in Thomond Park and if they can do the same in front of their own supporters, it will be their game.
“We have just got to go up there and play our game. We just have to concentrate.”
New Zealand-born Aki has drawn wide praise for his Connacht performances this season. And Stander will be keeping a close eye on the powerful centre on Saturday night.
“He (Aki) gets himself into every game and plays unbelievable rugby and lifts all those around him.
“He can do anything, (he’s) one of those who can play anywhere. He’s physical, always goes in 100%; big hits and big tackles. If you run at him, you know it’s going to be a big match-up.”
That defeat to Connacht was just one of eight Munster losses from their 19 Pro12 games to date.
And with just two regulation games remaining after this weekend — Edinburgh visit Cork on 29 April and Scarlets visit Limerick the following weekend — time is running out for Foley’s side to get back into the top four.
When reflecting on Munster’s season up to this point, Stander felt that their failings have been obvious. And the South Africa-born back-rower has called on his team-mates to take on extra responsibility to turn their campaign around.
“Throughout the season, the consistency was up and down,” Stander explained.
“You think that a Munster red jersey is always going to get into the finals or semi-finals so it is a bit of a surprise not getting there.
“But that’s where people need to take the onus on themselves and work hard to give the team the opportunity to get there.”
Stander, one of Ireland’s most consistent performers in this year’s Six Nations despite only making his debut in the first round against Wales, has recently returned from a week off in his native South Africa for his wife’s graduation.
While at home the 26-year-old had plenty of people asking him about his career in Ireland, particularly as Joe Schmidt’s side look towards a three-Test tour in South Africa in June.
With new Springboks coach Allister Coetzee appointed just this week, excitement is high in the nation to see what changes he makes.
“A few people recognised me and as people do, they come up to you and talk about the summer matches, what do you expect and stuff like that. Everyone is excited and looking forward to it.
“South Africans are always passionate about their team and with a new coach coming.
“I have played against Coetzee when he [was with] the Stormers… they have always been up there with the best defence. For a small guy, he packs a big punch.”
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