CJ Stander's wife Jean-Marié recalls friendship with Reeva Steenkamp: 'We'll never know what she could have been'
CJ Stander's wife Jean-Marié has paid tribute to her late friend Reeva Steenkamp, describing her as "an amazing girl."
The 25-year-old model moved to Limerick from their native South Africa in 2012 with her husband, who is signed to Munster. She is an ambassador for skincare line Nimue Skin, the same company that was represented by the late Reeva. Jean-Marié knew the model and had also met Oscar Pistorius.
"The sporting circles in Pretoria are pretty closely connected, so everyone pretty much knows everyone else."
She remembers Reeva as "an amazing girl". "If you talked to her, she would make you feel like the only person in the room and the most important person. It's just so sad that we'll never know what she could have been."
Like thousands of fans across the country today, Jean-Marié will be cheering on Ireland from her living room sofa when they take on England.
"I don't have a visa to travel to the UK," the South African explains ruefully. "But I'm still nervous and excited - I know Ireland v England is a massive game."
Two weeks ago, it was a different story when she watched proudly in the stands at the Stade De France as her husband CJ took to the field. She cried when he was named man of the match after his international debut against Wales.
Seeing him play has been the culmination of years of work that has seen the young couple move thousands of miles around the world to start a new life in Limerick.
After committing so much, Jean-Marié gets understandably furious with anyone who dares question her husband's allegiance to his adopted national side.
"Ireland wasn't his second choice," she says emphatically. "Ireland isn't a second-choice type of place.
"Ireland has been our home for the last four years and as far as CJ is concerned, it's Ireland that has made him the player he is today, not South Africa."
Happily, her family back their son-in-law's choice.
"They've all bought Ireland jerseys and even if Ireland was playing South Africa, they'd be in emerald green," she smiles. "I think everyone has a soft spot for Ireland - if he'd gone to England, they probably wouldn't have felt the same way!"
Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Jean Marié Neethling is the sister of Olympic gold medallist swimmer Ryk Neethling but also an athlete in her own right, having started a swimming career at the age of nine and going on to compete at international level.
In 2011, she was in Pretoria, training and working on designing her own swimwear line, when she started dating Blue Bulls flanker Christiaan Johan 'CJ' Stander. She says: "He says he knew straight away that he wanted to marry me, although for me, it wasn't that quick!"
He won her over by arriving at her apartment to fix a wobbly kitchen worktop with a tool box that it later transpired he had borrowed from his mates in a bid to impress her.
They moved to Ireland the following year and married, in South Africa in June 2013.
It was, she concedes, a lot for a young couple, adding: "But why wait for a 'right' age when you know you've already found the right person?"
Prior to arriving in Limerick, all she knew about the city was what she'd found on Google.
"I got a fright when it said it was one of the places with the least days of sun a year," she confesses. "And we had heard about it being called 'Stab City'.
"Then we came over and it's nothing like what people said. When the sun is shining in Limerick, it's probably the best place in the world."
Munster fans are "unreal". "It's like a massive family," she says. "Last week, I tweeted, saying CJ's debut match had been deleted from our Sky box, and straight away so many Munster fans got in touch saying, 'We've got it! We'll put it on DVD for you'. They're brilliant."
The couple have even found a local butcher happy to whip them up a string of 'Boerewors', their favourite spicy South African sausages.
But it hasn't always been easy. Their first language is Afrikaans and speaking English all the time - never mind trying to master 'Amhrán na bhFiann' - has been testing.
Jean-Marié misses her close circle of friends. Two years ago, her 35-year-old sister Elsje underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumour and has been battling the disease on and off for 20 years.
"Three weeks ago, she went for a check-up and it was clear, so that was good news," she says. "But it's always in your mind."
Despite obviously having the attributes, and regularly being described in the press as such, she's not a model.
"I get uncomfortable with photos," she admits. "The only thing that's even come close to me modelling is having photos taken for Nimue Skin."
Since completing her law degree in November, Jean-Marié has decided to use the next year to take time out and travel to CJ's games.
"I get asked 'when will you have kids?' all the time," she laughs. "But I'm too selfish at the moment to give up my sleep. We've two dogs and that's plenty of responsibility for now."
She adds: "Every time CJ gets the ball, I'm just thinking, 'You can do it.'"
Something we'll all be channelling at every Ireland player when the whistle blows at Twickenham today . . .