CJ Stander ready to make Lions bow ahead of schedule
‘It was probably only a year ago that I started to think the Lions was a possibility’
Munster and Ireland backrow CJ Stander makes his Lions bow against the Blues. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
CJ Stander admits he could never have dreamed he would become a British and Irish Lion when he watched the tourists in his native South Africa in 2009.
The former South Africa Under-20s captain looked on in awe as the Springboks pipped the tourists 28-25 in the second Test in Pretoria eight years ago — but never once considered himself a future Lion.
Flick the switch from 2009 to 2017 though, and the 27-year-old is not only a senior member of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad — he will now make his Lions debut in Wednesday’s Eden Park clash with the Blues.
“I watched that live game in South Africa in Pretoria in 2009, it was something special,” said Stander of the Lions’ second Test eight years ago.
“I just remembered the Lions coming out, it was some shift. They were just unlucky in the end.
“I could never have imagined at that point that I’d be a Lion. I was 19 at that point, so there was a lot in my mind.
“It was probably only a year ago that I started to think the Lions was a possibility, at the start of this season.
“It was spoken about at a press conference and I felt that I wasn’t even close to it at all at that point if I’m honest.
“But then I started hearing some excitement from people, supporters, suggesting that I could be in that mix.
“So then I felt I just wanted to challenge myself, maybe to put my name in the hat.”
Ken Owens will captain a side showing a full 15 changes from the tour-opening 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
Munster back-rower Stander admitted he has had to pinch himself on becoming a Lion, and settling into a squad that represents the very best talent in the northern hemisphere.
“The Lions is something that you work towards, the passion of the boys who have been in the jersey before you; four nations coming together for one goal,” said Stander.
“It takes a lot of hard work to be part of a bigger squad, that is the best of the best of four nations.
“It means you’ve worked hard to get there. The job’s not done yet but you’re part of it, in a group that has a lot of talent and X-factor.
“I’m looking forward to playing alongside that, the passion the boys has for the jersey, and the excitement.
“I feel like a kid again, when you get in that first team, you almost can’t believe that you’re there.”
Fit-again Ireland centre Jared Payne will face his former club the Blues on Wednesday in his Lions debut, having recovered from a calf strain.
The Kiwi-born Ulster star admitted he expects a tough challenge in going up against firm friends like Charlie Faumuina, but admitted relief at being fit to start.
Payne suffered a nasty lacerated kidney in Ireland’s autumn campaign, before recovering in time to force his way onto the Lions tour.
Then the combative midfielder was forced to pull out of the opener against the New Zealand Barbarians at short notice owing to a calf strain.
Now ready to get back into action, Payne said: “It’s been a bit of a roller coaster of a season for me, so it’s a bit of a relief just to be able to get out there on the field.
“Sometimes you can come straight back in and perform well others it might not go for you.
“So I’ve just got to do what I can and work to make sure I can go well.”