Gerry Thornley: CJ Stander strives to build lasting legacy

Ireland flanker knew he wanted to wear green when he first saw match at Aviva

CJ Stander: “I still get stressed before every game. It’s the unknown.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

CJ Stander: “I still get stressed before every game. It’s the unknown.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

This is a big day in the life of CJ Stander. His parents, Jannie and Amanda, arrived in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day. It’s his father’s first visit to Ireland, and the first time they will see their son play for his adopted country outside of last summer’s tour to South Africa.

“It’s also the first time ever that he’s getting a break from the farm,” says Stander in relation to the 600-acre, dairy and vegetable farm in George, South Africa, where he was reared. “I just said to him ‘look, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the Six Nations but you need to be over here for the last match and you need  to be here for the [European Champions Cup] quarter-final. So he was like: ‘I’ve to do this and this . . .’ I said: ‘You’re coming and that’s it.’ I booked the tickets.”

And so Stander’s younger brother, Janneman, who plays with the South Western Districts Eagles, is looking after the family farm. His parents did see him play for Ireland on last summer’s tour to South Africa, when Stander was red-carded in the first Test and suspended for the second, but played in the third.  

He’s an Irish rugby player now and no mistake. It’s not just about learning the words to Amhrán na bhFiann. In his fifth season living in Limerick and Ireland, he’s learnt to know who he’s representing. 

“Firstly, I didn’t grow up here, but then you arrive in Munster and you just see the passion and pride the people have for their province. Then I went to my first Aviva match and Ireland were playing South Africa, and you just get that feeling that this is where you want to be. You feel like you want to perform in front of this crowd.

“For me personally, I want to give something back to the coaches and all the people who invested time in me and supported me. The Irish jersey and the Munster jersey are two special things. You don’t just get them handed to you. You have to work hard for them. In this team you work hard for yourself and you work hard for each other. I also want to play for the supporters and for my family.”

And if he was to play only for Munster and Ireland for the rest of his career? “Happy days,” says Stander, although being honest, he didn’t always think it would pan out this way, not least in that difficult first year at Munster, when he started just three games for the province.

Sense of debt

His sense of debt begins with Shaun Payne, the former Munster fullback and manager who first made contact with Stander.

“And then Axel. We’ve talked a lot about this man, but he kept on working with me. He never told me why. He never told me why he wasn’t picking me. But he kept on doing stuff with me that was game-related after training, or meeting up with me. He taught me a lot, looking into [opposing] teams and telling me where I needed to be on Saturday.”

He mentions the support of Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls; Donnacha Ryan giving him lineout tips; Munster’s strength and conditioning coach Aled Walters, and the supporters. “They’re a big part of me staying positive and staying at Munster.”

And then there’s his wife Jean-Marie. “She supports me week-in and week-out. Because it gets tough. You take a week like last week. You don’t want to take your work home, but you’ve lost, and you’re stressed, because you know you made a few mistakes on the pitch. But she builds me up slowly again, and for someone to give up on their life and come with me was a big sacrifice. She’s a big part of where I’ve got to.”

Stander is in his fifth season with Munster, and thus his second with Ireland, having qualified on the three-year residency ruling which World Rugby are considering whether to extend to four or five years. He sees both arguments, although he says he didn’t even know what a special project was when he arrived.

“I’ve feel I’ve done my dues. I’ve worked hard to get into the Munster A side, and then the Munster side, and then to get into the Irish team. I feel that if I am selected I haven’t broken any rules. If it’s three years or five years, if someone wants to stay somewhere that long then he deserves a chance.”

Stander, who is hoping to acquire Irish citizenship by the end of the year, has now amassed 14 caps. It’s been eventful. Stander describes his debut against Wales in last season’s opening Six Nations game at the Aviva as “a special day”, albeit a stressful one.

“I still get stressed before every game. It’s the unknown. Some players go into a game in a relaxed way, but I feel I need to get stressed in the build-up to a game, and then let it all go on the pitch.”

He wanted to keep both his Irish jerseys from that game, but also wanted to swap jerseys with Sam Warburton. In a classy gesture, Jamie Heaslip gave Stander his jersey to swap with Warburton, so Stander’s two are framed and at home on his wall.

Unblemished

His first tries for Ireland followed in the wins over Italy and Scotland, but 23 minutes into the first Test in his native South Africa came the low point of his career when sent off for catching Pat Lambie on his follow through from an attempted charge down. It was the first red card of a virtually unblemished career. In 93 games for Munster he’s had one yellow card.  

His family were part of a 40-strong contingent of family and friends who had taken the long trek to Cape Town. “People thought I needed to prove myself to South Africa, playing against the giants where I was told I was too small. Then that happens and you’re walking off and 55-60,000 people are booing you. The biggest thing for me was worrying about Pat, because it was a big collision and I felt bad. After that, the [disciplinary] hearing was very stressful, so it was a stressful two weeks.”

At least 14-man Ireland won the first Test, and Stander’s one-week ban meant he could play the final Test in Port Elizabeth, albeit a losing one.

Stander has sent some of his jerseys home to his parents, and his mum told the party of 40 attending the first Test to wear Irish colours and support Ireland – otherwise they weren’t getting their ticket!

But if that first Test was the low point of Stander’s career, the high soon followed when Ireland ended 111 years of hurt by beating the All Blacks, with Stander amongst the try scorers.

Training had generated a good feeling. “Then you get to the game and the Irish team pulls together in memory of Axel and we’re at the front of the ‘8’. It was unbelievable, facing the haka with this band of brothers. To score a try against a team like that, and to get a win, it was unreal. It was very special.”

Looking back, and contrasting that day with last Friday in Cardiff, Stander talks of how all the passes stuck, how everyone was switched on and the bounce of the ball went with Ireland in Soldier Field. In contrast, the lapses in concentration last Friday made for “a long week”.

Ireland v England. He gets it. No worries about that. “South African people have a big desire to beat England but when I arrived here I realised that was small. These are the weeks you want to be fresh for and play in. Like I said, I want to leave the jersey in a better place, and what a game to play in.”

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