"This is getting awkward!" - CJ Stander on celebrating league win with 'old-school' Munster legend
"Who's that guy you're hugging and jumping around with?"
CJ Stander was back in Ireland, last week, ahead of their World Cup clash with South Africa.
Having retired from professional rugby, the former Munster, Ireland and Lions back-row quickly gets the allegiance queries to one side.
"I was born in South Africa and I can't change that," he tells me. "I'm South African, but I played 50 Tests for Ireland. To turn over now and to support the Springboks would be... I don't know. For me, I'm an Irishman.
"That's who I'm gonna back on the weekend. Even if they don't play well, that's my team."
The 33-year-old has been recently announced as international ambassador for the British and Irish Trading Alliance (BITA), and is putting his weight, and name, behind an initiative to build 1,000 homes and schools in some of South Africa’s poorest townships.
"I like to lift heavy stuff and look like I'm busy," he jokes, before explaining into how 'giving a leg up' to the disadvantaged is a new driving passion for him, along with spending more time with his wife, Jean-Marie, and young daughter.
As for rugby, that may be permanently on the back-burner. He lined up in 'an old boys game' four weeks ago and popped the AC joint in his shoulder. He is still having difficulty showering and sleeping properly and Jean-Marie sprinkles scolds, reminding him why it was he retired in the first place.
Our chat spans 30 enjoyable, revealing minutes as he discusses Munster's recent United Rugby Championship triumph, being told he was 'too small for the Springboks', the "dangerous" RG Snyman and Jean Kleyn, and why he was upset at rumours he was leaving Ireland, in 2021, to play rugby back in his native South Africa.
'We just hugged each other for about 10 minutes'
CJ Stander is talking with us over Zoom, from his place in Paarl, in the winelands about an hour out from Cape Town.
He admits 'life has changed drastically' since he retired, a little over two years ago. Always trying to prove something to someone - coaches, pundits, fans, himself - he found that he tried to take that sporting mentality into the world of construction.
"I went through a phase where I just went into my shell a little," he admits. "I wanted to impress people what I was doing work-wise, though, and I was just head-down working as hard as I can, in construction, over the last two years. And I quickly forgot that I played rugby because I was in the middle of these big contracts, left, right and centre and then heading on to sites where dust is blowing and there's bricks and grinders everywhere."
After two years of trying to move on from being a rugby player, he went back to the family farm and had a chat with Jean-Marie, his wife. It was okay, he reasoned, to slow down and appreciate the rugby career he had been through before going completely headlong into what was next.
The couple acquired a property in Franschhoek and opened up a guest-house that he jokingly refers to as 'a boutique hotel'. It allows the young family to spend a bit more time with each other. Stander does the school runs for his daughter, Everli, and even dressed her up in an Irish jersey for 'Bok Friday', last week.
"I saw an Instagram video saying that you've only really got four years with your children, to yourselves," he says. "After that, they start growing up and start moving on. Seeing that thing shook me and I was like, 'Well, I need to spend time with her'. Then we sort out the day and I go back, later, and pick her up in my work gear. To spend that time with her, and see her growing, means so much."
Another thing that means so much to Stander, and you suspect always will, is Munster Rugby. He arrived in Limerick at the age of 22 and will never forget how 'Axel' Foley invited himself and Jean-Marie around to his place for dinner with the family, when they were settling in.
Nine years later, he moved on after forever making a name for himself at a province were digging deep is the ground floor requirement.
A friend asked him, when he was at DHL Stadium in Cape Town for the URC Final, why he was not out on the pitch celebrating with his old teammates as they ended their long wait for silverware. Along with Jean De Villiers, another Munster old boy, he had been on commentary duty for the game.
"I do know a lot of them still but I wasn't part of that last two years, where they actually put the shoulder to the wheel and worked hard to win that. I wanted to give them that room to celebrate with that pride and joy, because it was unreal.
"I promise you, the whole week in Cape Town, it was Stormers, left, right and centre. Then the Irish started to arrive and they were thinking, oh we could be in trouble. I was so delighted... when you play for a team for nine, 10 years and you want them to do good and suddenly they come through and win something, I was just so emotional. I couldn't believe it. I event felt a bit sick, on the Monday and Tuesday, and I don't think it was that mix of alcohol and partying too long! Just emotionally, because it was a journey for me as well."
Stander's only wish from that final, he says, was that the final could have been in Limerick so every fan of the club could experience of being there when that long wait for a trophy [11 years] ended.
"I was delighted for the coaching staff and players. I saw [team manager] Niall O'Donovan and he's a man that doesn't cry and I saw him and I just... we just hugged each other for like 10 minutes. After a while, I was like, 'This is getting awkward, you need to leave!'"
'He's old-school Munster!'
Following that Munster triumph, CJ Stander did get to toast the trophy with a few of his old Munster teammates back at their team hotel. He also raised a glass with some of the RTE, Super Sport and TG4 crew that were in Cape Town, including Munster and Ireland legend Marcus Horan.
"After full-time, in the game," he recalls, "we were jumping up and down, celebrating, near where Pete [O'Mahony] was doing interviews. I got a message, with a picture, from a mate of mine and he was like, 'Who's that guy you're hugging and jumping around with?'
"I replied, 'That's Marcus Horan - he's old-school Munster!' When I arrived, he was still playing and was not long finished with Ireland. So, it was great to experience it with someone who's gone through the good and the bad."
Stander and De Villiers were there for a great post-match interview with O'Mahony and Graham Rowntree. Joking that O'Mahony, in training and in matches, is 'probably one of the most grumpiest people you've ever seen and talked to', Stander stresses that the Cork native only drives and cajoles teammates as much as he drives himself.
"He leads with example... he's special, you know. You could see how much it meant for him even in that interview afterwards, he was so giddy. Jean and all the guys were there, listening, and when Pete walks away, Jean just goes, 'That was unreal'."
Talking Keith Earls, and himself, to keep playing
My chat with CJ Stander comes the day after a really special, and open, Keith Earls interview with ITV goes viral for all the best reasons. In the interview, Earls speaks of moments of high doubt and times when he needed others to talk him into playing on.
Stander was one of those close to Earls that encouraged him to play on, but he needed others to do likewise when he was beset with worry.
"Keith is someone who's gone through ups and down," Stander noted. "He recently said that he wanted to retire earlier, and spoke with Andy [Farrell] about it. I actually had a conversation with him, when he was going through that. It was even before I wanted to retire [in 2021]. I told him not to call it a day, because I knew he wanted to give something back to the team and then win something with them.
"I went through it, I'm telling you now. I went through it every week, even playing for Ireland.
"I remember it was, say, my 45th cap. Around that week, I would text my wife and say, 'I'm not going to make it, I'm not going to be part of the team this weekend'. And she'd be like, 'Don't worry, you'll make it'.
"I would be so stressed about it and I think Keith has gone through a lot, as well. It's great that he can speak about it because, from the outside, if you look at a professional guy, it doesn't matter what he does, you always think these guys got it in line, they know they're gonna play. I'm telling you, it's not like that."
To look back on Stander's career, and remembering what a tyro he was on the pitch, it is hard to imagine that he would be plagued with self doubt. When you go back to his days in South Africa as he tried to make that final, brutal cut in professional rugby, you can see where he was coming from.
He always felt as if he needed to prove someone wrong.
That goes back to when he was just 21 years old, and told he was too small to ever make it as a Springbok.
'I was broken' - CJ Stander
CJ Stander played in, and captained, a South Africa side at the World Rugby U20 Championships, in 2010, and played alongside future Springboks like Pat Lambie, Ruan Combrink, Elton Jantjes and Siya Kolisi.
You would have to wonder about the coach that told Stander, such an exciting prospect, he was too small to be a Test rugby back row. The current Boks side does feature back rows like Duane Vermeulen [6-foot-4] and Pieter Steph du Toit [6-foot-7] but others in the World Cup squad range from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-3. Stander himself stretched the tape to 6-foot-1.
Stander was told he was too small in a Springbok era when Juan Smith and Pierre Spies [both 6-foot-5] had worn the 7 and 8 jerseys in the Test Series win over the Lions. The sense, back then, may have been that big was not only best, but the only way. Asked if that conversation really happened or if it had become an urban legend, Stander replies:
"Those words were spoken directly to me and my dad, actually.
"It is a bit of an urban myth and it's been blown up a little, but when that was said to me, yes, I was broken. I sat there and I couldn't believe it.
"My dad was there and he was like, 'All right, that's it. Let's go back to George and farm now'."
"I still had a contract [with the Bulls] and I stilled played Currie Cup that year. But as a 21-year-old, that just broke me. It wasn't because I was too small in the gym or weight wise... well, a little weight-wise, as well, but it was more most about length, you know. How the hell do you get taller?
"I remember Googling all the guys that I thought, at that stage, were some of the best players - obviously Richie McCaw, and Sam Warburton, guys like that. I was the same height. I couldn't believe. I just couldn't understand it.
"When I look back now, I took that all in. I was angry. I was a young guy, at 21. When someone stops you in your tracks, you get angry. So I was angry. I took that anger and I turned it into my training, my performances. I probably didn't step back and reflected until 2013, 2014 when I started playing week in, week out. For a long time, I still had that anger and drive to prove everyone wrong."
Stander tapped into that anger again, around 2016, when what he calls 'the two percenters' mad it known that he should not play for Ireland.
Aged 25 when he made his Ireland debut, Stander was still using the doubts of the few and whipping it up into something he used to push on.
"I said, 'Right, I'm gonna be the strongest, fittest there.' It might only be 1 or 2% of the people saying something negative out of 100 people. I took those 100 people and pretended that everyone doesn't want me, you know? I just said to myself, you need to work hard because they're waiting for you to fail."
After a while, says Stander, he really did start to enjoy his rugby and realise he was valued. He would still lean on Jean-Marie for those moments of doubt, whenever they crept back in, but she was always at the end of the phone, be it a call or a message, to tell him he was where he always wanted to be.
'I want people to know that what I'm gonna say here is what I believe'
Ahead of Ireland's final game of the 2021 Six Nations, CJ Stander surprised everyone bar those from his close, inner circle when he announced he would be retiring from rugby at the end of that season.
There was no second tour of Lions duty, so the boots were brought home to South Africa and he reunited with Jean-Marie and Everli after they had remained home during the height of Covid restrictions and concerns. There was an undercurrent, at the time, that occasionally bubbled to the surface, in Irish media and on social media. It was along the lines of CJ Stander taking his Test career, pocketing IRFU wages, and packing off to go home to play club rugby in his homeland.
Two years on, there has been no return to the Bulls, or any other South African franchise. What did Stander make of those snide comments, posts, and his intentions being twisted, at the time?
"It was tough," he admits, "but then I looked at it and realised that everyone doesn't know you. They don't know you personally. So it is easy to think that someone, when they retire [from Test rugby], is going go back and play again, especially if you haven't met that guy.
"But you've met me multiple times before. I think that I always try to stick to my word. When I used to walk in a room, to do media, I would shake everyone's hands. I wanted them to know that what I'm going to say here, now and next, is what I believe and it's in my words.
"When I first said in my statement that I was done, people didn't fully believe it because I was young. I'm still young now, I'm 33. It was tough, at the beginning. When I look back [on retiring] now, the world is funny. People go back on their words, people change and they do different things to what they say. But at least I know that I stuck to my guns."
Building schools and homes in Cape Town
Involved in the construction industry in South Africa for the past two years, since retiring, CJ Stander met up with members of the British and Irish Trading Alliance when he was in Ireland, late last year, to coincide with the Springboks' northern tour.
Stander was 'shocked that they wanted to ask me' to get involved with a project in South Africa but fully on board the moment building more homes and schools in disadvantaged areas was broached.
"We're looking to see if we can do close to 1,000 homes in Cape Town. Trying to bring a lot of European tradespeople to South Africa to help us with that - carpenters and plumbers, and the likes, to build houses and schools for the less privileged.
"We'll be trying to help people who are struggling at the moment, because life is tough. I see a lot of talent that goes to waste, not just in sport. I'm talking in general... When you go around, in South Africa, the amount of talent that's out there; it's true. Some people are never getting that glimmer of hope, or getting that leg up.
"That's probably why I wanted to jump on board with this project. Even if it's just helping someone to sleep under a roof, just doing something make sure that we can give back.
"Sometimes we take life for granted, we don't look at people suffering around us. I've got this opportunity to use my voice and my connections to get people together."
In November this year, 20 BITA members including President Paul Whitnell will travel to South Africa to join ambassador CJ Stander in the building of 1,000 homes and schools for those in need and are actively seeking participation from construction firms and their employees.
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