Feature: How Stander answered Ireland’s call

Despite his omission from the B&I Lions squad, CJ Stander will retire on his terms after making an indelible impact on Ireland and Munster rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

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There were a couple of reasons Stander’s retirement announcement rattled the rugby world in mid-March. The obvious one, of course, was the fact the South Africa-born Ireland loose forward was then only just approaching his 31st birthday (on 5 April). A player as young as that, performing at the peak of his powers, just doesn’t up and retire. Or so we thought.

Then there was the nature of his farewell statement, which provided another reminder of how the global pandemic and related lockdowns have sent many players into a period of intense introspection.

‘During the lockdown, I did a stocktake of what matters most to me in life,’ Stander wrote. ‘My faith, family and this incredible game I have played since I was six years old easily topped the list. However, I came to the realisation that my commitment to rugby has started to take an unfair toll on my family, who in Limerick and South Africa have made considerable sacrifices for more than 25 years to allow me to live my dream.’

It was a raw and powerful statement from a player who had just won his 150th cap for beloved club Munster, and only recently reached the 50-cap Test milestone for Ireland.

‘It was during a freezing training session at Munster towards the end of 2020 that I knew I had entered the final stretch of my career,’ Stander’s statement continued.

‘I asked myself whether I was still enjoying this enough to earn the continued support of Munster and Ireland, and to justify the sacrifices my family was making. From a performance perspective, the answer was yes. But I always had the intent to retire while I was still playing some of my best rugby.

‘I also knew I wanted my daughter Everli to grow up around her family in South Africa. When all these intentions and considerations intercepted each other during that training session, I discussed the implications thereof with coach Johann van Graan and the Irish Rugby Union. I deeply appreciate that they tried to persuade me otherwise, but I knew it was time.’

Stander will remain available to Munster until his contract expires at the end of June, and for international duty until the end of the mid-year Test window.

It therefore stands to reason that one final swansong with the British & Irish Lions could still be on the agenda, but there is a clear sense that he will happily head into retirement regardless of whether Warren Gatland offers him a call-up for that long-awaited series.

After all, Stander has set out his stall: rugby is not the be-all and end-all.

‘I will be playing my final matches as a professional athlete with contentment and gratitude for what was and for what lies ahead in the next chapter of my life,’ he said.

Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, some questions will linger. In fact, it didn’t take long for a report to pop up in Ireland suggesting that an underlying reason may have related to unhappiness with the contract offer made to him, although these were quickly rebuffed by the IRFU.

Closer to home, many South Africans speculated on social media whether Stander may be lured out of retirement once he was back in the country of his birth. Those close to Stander laughed off such a prospect, but it is a sincere sentiment considering that for many South African rugby fans, the bruising back rower remains the ‘one that got away’.

Born in George, and schooled at Oakdale Agricultural High, Stander represented SWD at youth weeks for three years in succession, emerging as a standout performer in the 2007 and 2008 U18 Craven Weeks.

In 2008, he was also named as captain of the SA School team. From there he moved into the Bulls’ youth structures while representing the Junior Springboks in 2009 and 2010.

At that point it appeared as if Stander was on a clear upward trajectory in South African rugby. However, what followed was a period of disillusionment over what has become a well-publicised suggestion that he should convert from the back row to hooker, with the not-so-subtle undertone being that he was too small for flank.

It wasn’t well received, so when Munster came calling, Stander didn’t hesitate to make the move from South Africa to Ireland. It quickly became his home away from home, but arriving in Limerick with a limited English vocabulary wasn’t without its challenges – especially when taking Afrikaans and Irish accents into account.

Former Springbok prop BJ Botha, who had joined Munster just the year before Stander’s arrival, tells SA Rugby magazine that he clearly remembers his fellow South African turning up on his first day.

‘CJ’s rugby CV spoke for itself – he’d played for South Africa throughout his provincial age groups and was kind of looking for this opportunity to take the next step.

Everyone was hugely excited and obviously the expectation was high, but we knew there was a road that needed to be travelled, coming over into a new environment, coming from an Afrikaans background, not used to speaking English let alone Irish English, getting used to the accents and so on.

‘So, it was challenging, but CJ found time to adjust to that and threw himself right into the culture at Munster, and really became the best version of himself. In those early days he found a way of playing some of his A games and really committed himself.

‘He knew that what he put in, what he did on the field, would overflow into the rest of his life: an “actions speak louder than words” kind of thing, and I think that’s really what CJ brought with him.’

Botha says Stander won respect on the field by ‘putting himself into places not many other guys would go’, while off the field he was approachable and clear-minded in embracing a new way of life and career at Ireland and Munster.

As time went by, Stander served out the qualification period to play for his adopted country and was warmly embraced by the Irish as one of their own. At Munster, his loyalty and consistency also enamoured him to the passionate supporter base in Limerick.

‘CJ led from the front, and if anyone was going to take the ball and make a big carry it was him,’ Botha reflects. ‘He also led off the field, and in his preparation leading up to a game, and I think as the years went on, that aspect matured and got better. He is a natural leader, and whatever came across in the heat of the moment, it was always the right word at the right time.

‘If he had to say something to a player, or pick him up off the ground, the way CJ did, it provided an energy that people fed off. CJ could change a game with one of his ground-breaking poaches or one of his ravishing runs down the field.

‘So, yeah, CJ was a game-changer and a consistent performer. That is one of the main things at the highest level, consistency, but he was on another level: a true professional.’

Stander will now shift his focus back to his family, leaving the Ireland and Munster jersey in a better place than which he found it, while calling time on his career emphatically on his terms.

‘I am not saddened by my decision,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a full and utterly enjoyable rugby career, and I can now look back on a journey that offered me rewards, memories and surprises beyond anything I could have scripted for myself. I wouldn’t change a thing.

‘The 150 matches I played for Munster were some of the most precious and formative experiences of my life. My blood will remain Munster Red long after I have said my goodbyes to the people of Limerick.

‘I have just played my 50th Test for Ireland. I have never considered myself a foreigner in an Irish jumper, but I knew this environment would only reward hard work, devotion and the forging of authentic relationships …

‘Ireland has enormous talent breaking through the ranks, and it is now time for me to step back and allow a new generation of players to answer Ireland’s call.’ 

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Craig Lewis