Three weeks ago, CJ Stander sat on the bench for the fifth time in the Heineken Cup. He expected to maybe get 15 minutes or so. Less than 20 minutes into the match, Peter O'Mahony's misfortune meant Stander had more than an hour on the pitch and he made sure it was a 24th birthday to remember.
It wasn't just his try. He contrived to make light of O'Mahony's loss, which is extraordinary in itself, and was a deserving Man of the Match. Nor was it the seven carries or the eight tackles. His corner flagging helped Simon Zebo deny Yoann Huget a try. Then, after Toulouse scored through Hosea and threatened a fightback, Stander poached for a turnover penalty. He also muscularly ripped the ball from Fickou in the tackle in the build-up to Zebo's late try. He seemed to be everywhere.
“Coming off the bench, you think you might get 15 minutes but I got 62 minutes and it was great, a great atmosphere,” he said at the outset of a half-hour interview which found him in a typically good mood.
"Thomond Park was flying. It was great running on to that pitch and getting all that energy off the crowd," he says. "Thomond Park is just something else. You run out and you just see red all over the place and people are singing songs, like Stand Up And Fight , and you think, 'this is goosebump stuff'. These are the things you write back home about."
Stander has good reason to have a strong affinity with Thomond Park. He arrived on October 30th last year and after a debut off the bench against the Scarlets hit the ground running with a two-try, Man of the Match performance in his first start on December 1st at the Limerick venue. But his season almost immediately went to ground, not helped by suffering a broken finger in that game which sidelined him for a month.
He's not going to lie, Coming from abroad and only making seven appearances, four off the bench, while being rerouted to Munster's B&I Cup campaign as Munster felt compelled to make additions to their Heineken Cup squad at prop and wing because of injuries, made it a tough first season.
Yet proof of things improving was Stander's decision to sign a new two-year deal last January, despite interest from at least one French club which is evidence not only of his loyalty but perhaps also his desire to qualify and play for Ireland.
“If someone asked me near the end of last season I’d probably played about two games for Munster. And I may have thought of maybe moving on, but the coaches and players kept encouraging me.”
As Bryan Habana said earlier in the week, such is the conveyor belt of talent coming through that players can easily get lost in the system. And especially with loose forwards. Nonetheless, to give up on his boyhood dream of playing for the Springboks at 22 and start a new career and a new life abroad was a brave decision.
“Yea, it was a big decision. My fiancee [now his wife, Jean-Marie Neethling] and myself sat down and said: ‘what’s my future plans. And where am I going to be in the next 10 years?’ Then Munster came along and said they wanted to sign me. I was sitting on the [Bulls] bench and they gave me a chance, and I’m grateful for that.”
One imagines he had easier conversations with his family. His father Jannie had played on the wing for the South Western Districts. “He’s a big Blue Bulls supporter, and he’s also a big Springbok supporter. I sat down with him and said: ‘There’s about 20 guys in front of me and Munster are giving me a chance.’ Playing for Ireland wasn’t even in the picture then. I just wanted to go overseas. He said: ‘I will support you full on. You go and do your best’.”
Stander is not the first, nor will he be the last, South African rugby player to use his sport to travel and become a dual citizen. There are logistical benefits
also. Last Wednesday, as before every Munster game outside Ireland, Stander had to drive up to Dublin to acquire a travel visa.
“It’s a nice trip up to Dublin but still it’s a hassle,” he says cheerily. “I want to take my wife to Toulon so we both have to get visas this week. We have to bring our marriage certificate. Talking to other boys, getting a passport definitely makes it easier to travel.”
Such thoughts never emptied his mind growing up on his family’s dairy and vegetable farm (which supplies Marks & Spencer among others) three kilometres from his home town of George. “It’s a third-generation farm and I’ll be the fourth if I want to go back farming.” That’s conceivable, for Stander happily describes himself as a farm boy at heart.
“I started working on the farm as soon as I started walking. I was milking cows from four or five in the morning, until 10 in the evening. We lived close to the sea so my dad would tell us we would have a break between one and two for lunch so we could quickly go to the beach. And he’d drive me and my brother.”
More interested in the discus and the 100m, Stander began playing rugby at nine in Blanco Primary School and initially was more of a number 10' or a 12. But from the age of 14 onwards he played more seriously when boarding at Oakdale Agriculture school. He turned out for the South African Under-16s and 18s, as well as South Western Districts Under-16s and 18s at the famous Craven Week, which prompted the Bulls to fly him to Pretoria to train with the senior squad on his vacations.
By then the dream of playing for the Springboks had long fermented in his head. "Every boy in South Africa who sees the Springboks wants to play for the Springboks. Corne Krige played and I said, 'I want to be like him. He's tough.' I liked Francois Pienaar when I was lot younger. My head was just into farming until I was about 16 when I thought I might be good enough and I could make it if I worked hard. And it went on from there."
Wrecking ball Rossouw
Training with the likes of Pierre Spies, Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw from the age of 18 only strengthened his ambition. He recalls one training session when running at a tackle bag and was hit from either side by Rossouw and Gethro Steengkamp. "I just heard, 'here comes the train'. After I went into the bag I think I woke up about
10 minutes later. ‘Okay, great. I’ll get him tomorrow’,” he says, laughing loudly.
It will be strange running out against Rossouw tomorrow, one of Toulon's wrecking balls against Leinster. "Playing against Griquas he [Rossouw] got the ball from a kick-off and ran straight through everybody, scored a try and just jogged back as if nothing had happened. He's a good guy. I like him a lot. A very nice fella. He's quiet, doesn't talk a lot and just does the hard work. He loves hunting and farming, so when you start talking about that you can see this guy knows what he's talking about. When I came to the Bulls he always talked to me and showed me the ropes."
Stander’s mother Amanda was a good net-ball player and his younger brother, Jannenan, also plays with South Western Districts. “He’s also a flanker but taller. So is my dad and my mum. I don’t know why I didn’t get their height,” he says with a hint of self-mockery.
By then he had encountered Jean-Marie. They met one night in 2007 at the Zanzibar in George while the World Sevens were being played there. "She was with an old boyfriend who played sevens and I knew him from SA schools. We talked that night and about a year later she invited me on to Facebook and we started chatting. Just small talk. She was in Bloemfontein, where her family still lives, and I was in Pretoria and I liked this girl. I knew one day something was going to happen. She moved to Pretoria in 2010, we went out for coffee and I knew, 'phew, that's it'. Young love. She was studying [law] and swimming. And I was playing rugby. She's a great support. She knows how tough sport can be."
Jean-Marie’s brother Ryk is an Olympic gold medallist swimmer and she is training to make the Rio Olympics after missing out seven years ago due to glandular fever and studies taken more than three years ago. Indeed, one of the key attributes Munster had going for them when signing, and resigning Stander, was the 50m UL pool.
"She won the Commonwealth in South Africa in 2006 and she's back in the pool now after recovering from a shoulder injury. So she's in the pool every morning at five and ticking off boxes on the road to Rio. She's more in the pool than in the house. But I said to her, 'after that, babies'," and he
laughs loudly. And again the hearty laugh when he adds: “She is studying law and I said to her: ‘Yes, I can retire after 10 years!’ She’s the solicitor, she can earn some money.”
The lifestyle in Ireland was difficult for both at first. Jean-Marie was used to the sun and swimming in an outdoor pool and they struggled with the food, but acquiring a dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel by the name of Abby, made home seem more like, well, home.
“She lights up home for me when Jean-Marie is not there and for her when I’m not there. Then guys like Paulie [O’Connell] and BJ [Botha] and Wian [du Preez] made it easier by inviting us over to their homes for dinner. We also tried to discover Ireland. We’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher and Lahinch and all the castles around Limerick and the Ring of Kerry.”
He will qualify to play for Ireland at the end of October 2015, just after the World Cup. But, diplomatically, he is not inclined to shout from the roof tops about his international ambitions.
“Munster gave me a chance, and I came here to play for Munster and then the possibility of one day playing for Ireland popped up. At this stage I’m excited about it, but I’m just working from game to game. I don’t want to start talking about taking an Irish guy’s place. I want to be a good player, at 6, 7 or 8, but I’m starting to love this country. I love the supporters. When I’m talking to my family I talk about Ireland as home. It would be great to pull on that jersey. If it comes to me it would be a great honour.”
He was Married last June. Life as well as rugby is better now. They have each made new friends. Jean-Marie’s parents, Ryk and San-Marie, were over within a month of their arrival. And while his own family have not been to visit yet, his mum will arrive in November; he intends to make sure his dad will next season.
Big game performance
One of the advantages of the Heineken Cup is that, unlike the Pro 12, the games are televised in South Africa
. So his family get to see him play. Not before time, tomorrow’s game will mark Stander’s first Heineken Cup start. Along with several others therefore, that makes this semi-final the biggest occasion of his career to date.
“The game against Toulouse was quite open. I think this is going to be tighter and tougher, more big forwards to run into. But we’ve worked for this all year. This is cup rugby. We have to win this game. Everything is on the line, everyone is going to throw the kitchen sink into it.
“It’s cup rugby. You don’t want to let the team down. Everyone has to do their part, and more. I have to. I need to play the best game of my life this weekend. That’s not even a given.”