CJ Stander admits lure of home and family behind decision to end career

Number eight made a pro career with Munster and Ireland after South Africa rejection

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has said that CJ Stander will be a "big loss" to Irish rugby after the Munster, Ireland and Lions number eight announced that he will retire from rugby at the end of the current season. Video: VOTN

 

In all the analysis of why a rugby player who is about to turn 31 might come to the conclusion that the end of this season marked as good a time as any other to retire from the game and go home to South Africa, one simple factor probably overrides all others. As he explained to his Ireland team-mates when informing them in the Carton House on Monday night, he just wants to go home.

It’s now been almost nine years since CJ Stander, then a raw 22-year-old Afrikaner who by his own admission could barely speak English, landed like a fish out of water in Limerick. Rejected by the South African system for being too small as a number eight, with the backing of his family he resolved to make the most of his opportunity as a project player in the Irish system with Munster.

That he did, and how. But he’s always been a homebird who pined for the family farm back in George in the Western Cape. His then girlfriend and now wife Jean-Marié has also sacrificed home life to facilitate Stander’s career, and her return to Cape Town with their daughter Everli in this Covid and lockdown times would only have made him pine for home that bit more.

Stander had resolved to make this his last season three months ago, and in games since then he conveyed the impression of a man at ease with his decision and who was determined to enjoy every last moment. The most surprising aspect about all of this is that his team-mates seemed genuinely “shocked”, as Peter O’Mahony put it.

“He explained his reasons and they’re very valid ones, very noble ones in my opinion,” said O’Mahony. “Everyone would respect his decision. The man has given an incredible amount to Ireland, Munster as well and Limerick. An incredible team-mate and he’s going to give a bit back to his family now for the sacrifices they’ve made for him.

“We’ll hopefully make this week and the couple of months left that he’s playing with us as special as we can,” added O’Mahony, who is likely to step back into the Ireland team this Saturday against England after completing his suspension.

As this match will now be Stander’s 51st and last game for Ireland, this week was also his last opportunity to look his team-mates in the eye and tell them of his decision.

Stander’s command of English has long since been a source of ribbing among his Munster team-mates.

Munster’s CJ Stander scores a try during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Castres at Thomond Park in December 2018. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster’s CJ Stander scores a try during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Castres at Thomond Park in December 2018. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“It was shocking,” Keith Earls confirmed yesterday. “The two of us couldn’t communicate between his Afrikaans and my Moyross accent, so we had someone in between us chatting. It’s come on in fairness to him, he’s not messing when he says that his English has come on, for sure.”

In that difficult first season Stander only played seven games for Munster – starting just three – but no one had more faith and interest in him as a player and a person than Anthony Foley, then the Munster forwards coach.

Seven seasons on Stander has played 150 games for his province and, after Foley was appointed head coach, become a regular stand-in as captain in the absence of O’Mahony.

“He leads with his actions,” said Earls, “and I think off the field there isn’t anyone in the country who has a bad word to say about CJ, or that he’s had a bad moment with any supporter or anything like that. He’s so open minded and he’s so caring to the people.

“The Munster and Irish jersey means a lot to him and he knows how much it means to Munster and Irish people as well. He’s come over as South African but he’s definitely leaving as a Munsterman and an Irishman.”

So what does Stander’s journey tell us about him? According to Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who coached Stander on the Lions tour four years ago and is one of the best players he’s ever worked with, in a word: “Attitude.”

“Attitude, and a want to get better. Physically, he’s got it and I keep teasing him ‘you would have made a great tighthead prop’. He tells me he was too skilful for that. No, his humility and wanting to get better.

“He would take advice. You never have to criticise the guy because he’s so honest. You never have to be on his case, but I’d say whatever you’re doing, whatever drill you have planned or you’re organising, he’ll be the first guy in the drill. He’s just been exemplary.”

Stander has left the door ajar for a fitting finale with the Lions against the Springboks this summer. Who knows, maybe he could pitch up with one of the South African franchises next year, although he is no longer South African-qualified, so most likely therefore, this is indeed it. He exited on his own terms and while still at the top of the game.

All the while, Stander has done it his way, right until the end.

CJ Stander factfile

Munster

Played 150. Tries 42.

Ireland Played 50 (plus 1 Test for the Lions).

Won 32, Drawn 1, Lost 17. Winning ratio of 65 per cent.

v Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

Played 12, Won 7, Drawn 1, Lost 4 (Plus 1 draw with the Lions).

Awards

2014-2015

Munster player of the year – first overseas player to do so

2015-16

Rugby Players Ireland players’ player of the year (the third overseas player to do so). The Irish Times-sponsored supporters’ player of the year award, becoming the first overseas winner and the first player to win both.

Munster player of the year.

Rugby Writers of Ireland player of the year.

2016-17

Shortlisted for European player of the year.

2019-20

Munster player of the year for a record third time in six years.

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