Sexton, O’Mahony lead Stander tributes after both admit being blindsided by news

Forwards coach Graham Rowntree says Munster have ‘some big shoes to fill’

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

 

Although CJ Stander first came to the realisation that the end of this season marked an opportune moment to retire from professional rugby last December, and discussed the matter with Johann van Graan and David Nucifora, it appears his decision caught his team-mates very much by surprise.

As the Ireland captain, Johnny Sexton was the first member of the squad to be formally informed when he was called to a meeting Monday morning at the squad’s Carton House base by Andy Farrell, with Stander alongside him. Stander subsequently informed the rest of the squad at a team meeting on Monday night.

“Yeah, shocked. Didn’t see it coming,” said Sexton. “It was the last thing that I thought I was getting called in for. Literally, if you had given me a thousand things to guess it wouldn’t have even registered on it.

“Look, he has done things for the right reason. His wife and daughter are back in South Africa. They have been there for the last few months and they were there for the last lockdown as well so it takes its toll. You just take a decision based on family reasons and we respect him for that.

“He is a big loss to Munster and Irish rugby. He has been huge for both teams over the last, what is it, five, six years so, yeah, very shocked but we wish him well and we hope that his last game in green will be one to remember,” added Sexton in reference to this Saturday’s 2021 Six Nations finale against England at the Aviva Stadium, which will now be Stander’s 51st and last Test for his adopted country.

“In fairness to CJ, I think that’s why he announced it early. He wanted to get it out of the way because he is a team guy and he wanted then to concentrate on his performance but, at the same time, do it the right way and announce it before his last game rather than just walking away and I think it was the right thing to do.

“He will be a big loss. He has contributed so much in the time he has been here and we wish him well. It’s for the right reasons.”

Asked what set Stander apart as a team-mate, Sexton said: “He is a great person, first and foremost. You can’t be a good team-mate without being very popular in the group. And then just his work ethic.

“I can’t ever remember him missing a game. Maybe through suspension after his red card against South Africa but in terms of being injured, maybe you guys will tell me a game he did miss, but I can’t remember one,” said Sexton, citing Stander’s relentless attitude, preparation and toughness.

“I played against him numerous times and been on the receiving end of a few carries. He has got the utmost respect of anyone who has played with or against him and when you finish up that is ultimately what you want.

“As a player you want to win things but the older you get the more you realise you just want your own team-mates first and foremost to respect you and for the opposition to think that, yeah, he is a pretty good player and I’m pretty sure that he has achieved that.”

Peter O’Mahony on CJ Stander: Peter O’Mahony: “He’s a family man, an incredible friend, incredible team-mate, but most importantly an incredible friend. I can’t say much more.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Peter O’Mahony on CJ Stander: Peter O’Mahony: “He’s a family man, an incredible friend, incredible team-mate, but most importantly an incredible friend. I can’t say much more.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

It tells us much about Stander’s personality and performance standards that despite being a fish out of water when he arrived in Munster in 2012 and, by his own admission, barely able to speak English, he was the go-to stand-in captain whenever Peter O’Mahony was absent.

Stander’s provincial and Irish backrow team-mate was equally taken aback.

“Very shocked obviously when he told us all last night. Didn’t see it coming, I don’t think anyone did,” said O’Mahony who, like Sexton, has signed a new central contract and is older than Stander.

“He explained his reasons and they’re very valid ones, very noble ones in my opinion. 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 team after completing his suspension for the red card he sustained in the opening round against Wales.

O’Mahony highlighted Stander’s “selflessness” and “professionalism” as standout traits, and added: “From the day he arrived in Munster he did his best to buy in to our culture and now he’s creating bits of our culture.

“He’s a person I’d always think ‘who do kids look up to?’

“You want to be someone young fellas look up to, I suppose it’s a nice compliment to give someone. There’s kids around, not just Ireland, around the British Isles and beyond who want to be like CJ.

“He’s a family man, an incredible friend, incredible team-mate, but most importantly an incredible friend. I can’t say much more.”

And as a competitor?

“You see the way he turns up every week. It’s no secret that he’s never had a long-term injury or any sort of injury and that’s down to how he looks after himself,” said O’Mahony.

“He brings an incredible edge. He’s an immaculate trainer. Incredibly coachable, his ability to listen and learn new skills. The player he arrived as and player he is now, he’s come such a long way and he’s lapped up [information] from the incredible coaches myself and himself have spent time with.

“Just a competitor, we’ve all watched him play 50-odd times for Ireland and 150 for Munster, he’s just competitive with everything and that’s what made him such an incredible team-mate.”

The Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who first coached Stander on the Lions tour to New Zealand four years ago, admitted: “What a loss. Gutted. So sorry to see him go. Delighted he is doing it on his terms but plenty of rugby for him to play before he does it.

“What a shock to us all. He’s a great bloke, a great rugby player, but a great bloke more importantly. We’ll miss him around here. Literally, some big shoes to fill.

“Day-in, day-out, every session he empties the can, every game he usually plays 80 minutes and gives everything in every training session. He’s such a good guy around the play, humble and professional but warm as well.

“He likes a bit of craic like everyone around here but he will be a big character to replace.”

Picking out one favoured memory of working with him was too difficult for Rowntree.

“Crikey, most sessions, most Tuesdays. Tuesdays are our heavy day and he’d be the one leading the charge. He quietly gets on with things, does his job, always full of encouragement. I honestly can’t speak highly enough about the guy, in my experience he’s one of the best guys I’ve worked with.”

Stander’s statement very much left the door ajar for a grand finale with the Lions against the Springboks this summer.

“They could do worse than taking him because he’s a proven performer on the big stage, he knows those South Africans as well, so he can do worse than picking CJ,” ventured Rowntree. “That [backrow] area of selection, I’m sure, we’ll be tightly contested.”

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