The impact CJ Stander has had on Irish rugby has been immense and his pending exit from the Emerald Isle will leave a gaping void, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
Stander’s retirement announcement this week came as a shock, to be fair. But perhaps ‘shock’ doesn’t quite cut it. That would be short-selling the emotional impact of his departure on fans.
Stander has been a pillar of strength in Irish rugby – the bedrock on which much of their success over the past five years has rested. For Ireland and Munster fans his departure is not a ‘shock’ but a tragedy.
To be clear, Stander is a generational talent who will not soon (if ever) be replaced. In his 50 caps for Ireland he has been their go-to man to generate front-foot ball. Ireland, who long struggled with toothless packs, relied heavily on Stander’s ballast at eighthman.
He sits at the top of the list for the most carries made in a game for Ireland (25). His name occupies the next five spots on that list, too. All in all, he features 14 times in the top 22.
Fans are often obsessed with ‘metres made’ as a metric for determining a player’s performance. Nonsense, I say. ‘Metres made’ alone is a misleading and often quite poor indication a forward’s worth. Carries, tackles and cleanouts are where a back rower’s true value lies.
For Stander to regularly carry over 20 times in a game, demonstrates better than any other statistic his benefit to Ireland. His ability to commit opposition defenders, who often had to gang-tackle Stander in order to stop him, freed up space for other players to attack.
He performed a very specific role for Joe Schmidt (and later Andy Farrell) and did so with aplomb. It’s not for nothing that Irish fans brag about ‘CJ Stander’s sit-down emporium’.
When Stander earned his first cap for Ireland in 2016, the side had never beaten New Zealand, never won in South Africa, and never beaten each of the southern-hemisphere’s ‘Big Three’ in a calendar year.
At the time of his 50th cap, Ireland have achieved all those goals and a Six Nations Grand Slam to boot. CJ Stander has been there every step of the way.
Stander’s value to Irish rugby goes far beyond his on-field performances, though. The effusive praise from players and fans alike that has followed his retirement shows the calibre of the man.
There are scores of anecdotes, photos and stories painting the picture of Stander as ‘one of the good guys’. Someone who never failed to make time to talk to his supporters, and always with a beaming grin on his face.
Even in retirement Stander’s character shines through. At only 30 years old he has plenty of gas left in the tank but has chosen to step aside because it is the best decision for his family.
Professional sport is a selfish profession. To be successful in it there is no other alternative. Players’ families make tremendous sacrifices on their behalf, often following them across oceans to support their career. It shows the kind of man CJ Stander is that he is now repaying those sacrifices.
Stander will go down as an all-time great for Ireland and Munster. The boy from George who shone in the Shamrock. The man ‘too small’ for rugby who leaves a hole too big to fill.