CJ STANDER TOOK the rare move of sticking himself firmly in the spotlight this week. At the age of just 31, he will retire from professional rugby in just a few short months.
It is a decision that came as a shock to those who follow the sport and those within it. In his relatively brief time in this part of the world, Stander has made a big impact.
On the Test stage, a return of over 50 caps which took in the 2018 Grand Slam and a handful of historic wins against New Zealand and Australia is quite the return for just five years of service in the green jersey.
At club level Stander’s influence has been even greater. The South African spoke little English when he arrived in Limerick back in 2012 but leaves a Munster legend. The number eight jersey holds extra significance in that part of the world. He’s certainly served it well.
“He’s been an unbelievable professional, he’s been definitely the best overseas player we’ve ever signed at Munster, he’s right up there with the best overseas player that has come into the country,” says Keith Earls, adding that he understands how his friend and teammate came to his decision.
“So look, he’s 31 next month so I think the fact he’s so young, he’s not injured, the professional he is, a lot of people are going to think he’s crazy, but knowing CJ, his family comes first.”
The plaudits will come thick and fast over the coming weeks but life in Ireland hasn’t always been so rosy for Stander. His first season at Munster was a challenging one, comprising of just seven appearances, four of which came off the bench.
“Yeah, he found it tough to get in at the start,” Earls continues. “He came over quite raw. We had Rob Penney coaching at the time, who was trying to play a certain kind of game and CJ, it took him a bit longer to adapt.”
A wonderful solo try against Glasgow on his first start for the province underlined his potential, but Stander took a while to grow into the player he would become.
“I remember we played Glasgow in Thomond Park, he made an outrageous length of the field break to score a try, and I was like ‘Jesus, this fella is the business,’” Earls says.
“I think definitely when Axel (Foley) took over (as head coach) and Pete (O’Mahony) was injured for a good couple of months, and CJ took over the captaincy, you could see his qualities there and you wondered could this fella go all the way. Now he has 50 caps for Ireland, he’s rarely injured, unbelievable professional, always up there for highest carries, turnovers, etc.”
Stander also had to deal with a fair share of negativity that came with his ‘project player’ tag, but his teammates clearly never doubted his commitment to the cause. Across 200 games between club and country he has become an important leader in both dressing rooms.
“The off the pitch stuff, he’s always bringing the energy win, lose or draw, he’s trying to find how he can be better between his recovery. Small little things like that.
“A lot of fellas would be looking at him, he leads with his actions, 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.
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Earls says Stander has led by example on and off the pitch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“He’s come over as South African but he’s definitely leaving as a Munster man and an Irish man.”
Stander’s announcement somewhat dominated yesterday’s short press conference with Earls, who is fresh from delivering a superb performance in the win over Scotland which cemented his place in Andy Farrell’s team for Saturday’s final round meeting with England.