CJ Stander among the few athletes who took control of their future

It is not difficult to understand how South African-born forward came to decision

Something unusual happened this week. An athlete, central to his team and still performing at international level, chose to walk away from a sport he has played since childhood. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t offered a poor contract. He wasn’t dropped or sidelined.

The cold criticism of physical output and declining statistics were not leaning on CJ Stander. His carries, yardage, tackle count, they were all in the range for Andy Farrell to keep picking him to play for Ireland, yet tomorrow against England will be the last time he sings Ireland's Call. Small mercies.

Historically, what Stander did is rare. Elite athletes over the decades have always struggled with when to step back. To retire, while they remain physically and mentally competitive, tugs on every ambitious sinew that got them there in the first place.

But Stander, in opting to return to George on the beautiful Western Cape of South Africa, gets his name on to a list that only exists because the athletes on it opted out when they were very much in. They are relatively few in number.

Among others Stander joins tennis players Marion Bartoli and Bjorn Borg as well as golfer Lorena Ochoa and boxer Rocky Marciano.

Just over a month after reaching the pinnacle of her career, winning Wimbledon, French tennis player Bartoli announced her retirement from the sport. The 28-year-old said the physical toll had become too much to bear, calling it quits after losing a second-round match at a US Open warm-up event.

Dominant presence

Borg shocked tennis when he retired at 26 in 1983. Probably the best player in the world at the time, he was the first man in the Open era to win 11 Grand Slam singles titles and five of those were at Wimbledon. Teenage girls swooned when they saw him, wept when he left.

Ochoa was 28, the same age as Bobby Jones was when he retired from competitive play to run his law firm. She had been the number one ranked female golfer in the world for the previous 157 weeks. No woman since has held the top spot for more than 109 weeks. She was a two-time major champion and the dominant presence on the world tour since Sweden's Annika Sorenstam retired two years earlier.

Marciano was 32 years old when he hung up his gloves for good. He ended with a 49-0 record and held the heavyweight championship for nearly four years before he walked away as the only heavyweight champion to have finished his career undefeated.

In 30-year-old Stander's case you only need to look at the short video interview he gave to the local George Herald last April, when he returned to South Africa during lockdown. There are photos of Stander with his brother Janneman and father Jannie standing in the middle of a field, their field, surrounded by cabbages.

There is a video clip of Stander doing squats with 50kg bags of maize. He speaks of the time when he was a teenager and asked his father if he could join a gym.

“I was about 16. He laughed at me,” he says. “He said you’ve been doing that your whole life here and you don’t even know it. So, he made me a pull up bar in the dairy.”

That same day the Irish backrow had just delivered 1,000 heads of cabbage for a farm customer and explained that he had come home because he was “scared if something happened to my family I couldn’t get to them”.

The family farm employs 90 to 100 people but had dropped to 10 because of coronavirus. At that stage of the year Stander hadn't met with any of his Munster or Ireland team-mates for two months.

Sense of belonging

To his right in the room, where the interview is being conducted is a large wooden beer barrel and behind him on the shelves appear to be pots of home-made jams or pickled fruit with a piece of white cloth thrown on top them. The sense of his belonging to those fields, those people is overwhelming.

With his wife and child factored in, it is not difficult to understand how he came to the decision to break, not just with Munster and Ireland but with a lifestyle and public profile, a mindset, a routine and a team environment.

A study conducted at Stellenbosch University in 2007 showed that athletes who had control over their decision to retire had a less difficult professional sport to career transition and an easier time progressing into a post-professional sporting life. It explains the termination of a sporting career is an important life event, which can have a significant influence on an athlete's future.

For Stander, all the things associated with being a high-profile rugby player in a small country like Ireland will vanish. The moorings will be severed. The identification with an institution of power and influence over individuals and the constant affirmation of his importance as a player and of his role as a leader will be forgotten.

But it is not difficult to believe his decision may have softened over those warm winter months at home last year to something he had been doing all his life. Unlike the gym he wanted to join at 16 years old, Stander did know it all along. And now he has taken control.