CJ Stander became the first non-Irishman to win Munster’s Player of the Year award and qualifies to play for Ireland after the World Cup. GERRY THORNLEY reports.
The list of Munster’s overseas players is fairly impressive. From John Langford to CJ Stander and all the others in between, be it Jim Williams, Trevor Halstead, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Jean de Villiers, Christian Cullen and Doug Howlett. In one respect, though, Stander tops them all, for he is the first overseas player to be named Munster’s Player of the Year.
You read that list to him and he laughs.
‘I spoke to Dougie afterwards and he was like, “Ah man, I wish I’d got it.” Yeah, it was unbelievable.
‘When I got nominated by the team I thought “it’s great to be nominated”, but the public then voted and you had Tommy O’Donnell from Tipperary and Billy Holland from Cork. It just shows the supporters have been behind me since the day I arrived and have always backed me.
‘It was an honour for me and my family,’ Stander adds. ‘My dad [Jannie, who played on the wing for SWD and is a big Bulls supporter] phoned me after the awards ceremony and he was crying. My parents are big Munster supporters and it’s all they talk about. They want to be proud of their son.’
The turning point for Stander was the European Cup quarter-final against Toulouse at Thomond Park in March last year. He expected another 20-minute cameo off the bench, but an injury to Peter O’Mahony in the first quarter saw Stander propelled into the match and his phenomenal carrying, poaching at the breakdown and defensive work – decorated with a try – ensured he won the Man of the Match award.
‘From then I just kept on playing, game after game. That’s when I play my best. Previously I had just played 20 minutes or started one game and was then off for two weeks. In that Toulouse game I got my chance and I took it, and it was a great match,’ he says of Munster’s stunning 47-23 win over the four-time champions.
‘I wasn’t supposed to start in the semi-final, but Donnacha Ryan’s foot wasn’t right. The real first start for me, when I knew from the Monday, was the first European Cup game this season against the Sale Sharks.’
Stander feels more comfortable in himself now, more at home in Limerick with his wife Jean-Marie and more assured of his place in Munster.
‘I felt at home from the beginning, but I feel more a part of the team now. If I want to add something to a conversation or a meeting, I can do so and feel confident about it. That’s down to the boys and coaches keeping faith in me. It’s great to feel part of something that’s bigger than just rugby.’
When Munster coach Anthony Foley – helpfully for Stander an outstanding and intelligent Test No 8 in his day – spoke of his first-choice loose trio recently, Stander was name-checked along with their captain Peter O’Mahony and last season’s Player of the Year, Tommy O’Donnell.
‘He’s hugely important to us,’ said O’Mahony. ‘He’s blossomed. He’s really bought into Munster and what it’s all about, and I’d say he’s more Munster than a lot of us in the change room before games. He’s a really strong personality and he’s been unbelievable over the past season or two for us.’
Stander’s ball-carrying and try-scoring exploits are his trademark, but he has also improved his work rate and defence.
‘His ball-carrying is incredible,’ says O’Mahony. ‘He’s not just a lump of a man either, he has lovely hands when he wants to use them and he’s a great footballer. He’s hugely powerful so he’s a great asset to have.’
Back in South Africa, to his and his family’s frustration, only Munster’s European Cup games are televised, and not their Celtic Pro12 games.
‘It seems like they forget about me in South Africa but then I have one or two European games and they say, “Oh yeah, he’s still good”. It’s tough for my family, because they only see me play five or six times a year. I thought it would be different when Sky began covering the Pro12. It’s a shame but it’s one of those things.’
The topic of World Rugby's three-year residency rule has become a hot one, not least due to Stander being part of the heavy traffic from South Africa to Ireland as ‘special projects’ with a view to becoming Irish internationals.
Richardt Strauss and Robbie Diack have preceded him and Stander qualifies for Ireland after the World Cup.
‘There are also a lot of players coming from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific islands. It’s a big debate in South Africa, where they are asking, ‘‘Why are they taking our talent?”’
Like most young South African players, Stander grew up dreaming of representing the Springboks one day, but now does not disguise his excitement at the prospect of one day representing his adopted country – and wearing the green of Ireland rather than the green of South Africa – without in any way being presumptuous.
The way Stander sees it, he simply wouldn’t be the player he is now if he had stayed in South Africa.
‘I thought I was a good player when I left the Bulls, but I was actually average. When I got here Munster took me under their wing. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing, but they had a plan and it’s going well now.
‘They transformed me into the player I am now, so I owe a lot of people here everything. I want to play as well as I can for Munster and if the chance comes to represent Ireland, I’ll grab it.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine