Saturday 29 April 2017

'All I can do is play hard and prove critics wrong' - CJ Stander

CJ Stander in Limerick this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
CJ Stander in Limerick this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

After watching his son play a leading role in Ireland's win over England two weeks ago, Jannie Stander was overcome with emotion.

The nature of the win and CJ's role in it, the welcome he and his wife Amanda had received since arriving for their first visit together and the occasion at the Aviva Stadium filled him with pride, and the tears flowed.

Not long after the game, the main man made his way into the stand to greet his parents and his wife Jean-Marie to get a picture. Still wearing his full kit and flanked by his parents, who are both sporting Ireland jackets, the photograph he posted to his Instagram page is a keeper.

The Standers had no connection to Ireland before Shaun Payne contacted CJ and offered him a path to international rugby via Munster, but here they were sharing a family moment 10,000km from the family farm in George on South Africa's Eastern Cape.

Over the course of what he reflects on as a "trying" Six Nations, the talismanic back-row became the lightning rod for critics of World Rugby's residency laws, with journalist Paul Kimmage among those who questioned his connection to the country he represents.

Others joined the debate on both sides, with a vocal cohort of Munster fans standing by their man in vociferous terms on social media, and Jean-Marie quick to defend her husband's record in red and green.

The man himself was aware of the debate. How could he not, when irate fans would approach him on the streets of Limerick to tell him how he'd been wronged?

As he sits on the balcony overlooking Munster's High Performance Centre, he raises an eyebrow and smiles as the topic comes up as he expected it would.

CJ Stander with his parents - Amanda and Jannie - and his wife Jean-Marie at the Aviva Stadium after the Six Nations victory over England
CJ Stander with his parents - Amanda and Jannie - and his wife Jean-Marie at the Aviva Stadium after the Six Nations victory over England

"I do understand why they say that. In the beginning, I wondered 'why are they using me as a poster-boy?' but I am now at that level that I am playing and people want to use me," he says.

"Luckily, stuff like that doesn't bother me. People have opinions, they'll always have opinions and I'm not going to change that.

"All I can to do is play weekends and prove them wrong really, to keep on ploughing forward.

"Social media-wise, normally on a big week like this I'll be on it for two or three days and on the Wednesday I'll just cut it out. Closer to the game, it gets easier.

"Jean-Marie is quite good, she doesn't even mention it to me because she knows it's like water off a duck's back.

"There's both sides to it and I understand their point, but I understand mine and what it's like for everyone within the rule.

"We're just playing by the rules, as long as I'm performing and on the pitch putting the jersey in a better place then that's great.

"If not, then I won't be selected and I won't be there any more.

"It's a good debate, and there's a bit of a vibe going on but it doesn't really bother us: the players and people close to us don't talk about it.

"I get a lot of people in Limerick especially telling me about this, almost angry about it. They think people are attacking me. I just always tell them 'what can you do?' I don't mind it, so you don't have to mind it.

"They look after me, I want to give something back to them and I want to give something back to Munster, the coaches, the people who put down the money for me.

Williams has high praise for Ireland's CJ Stander
Williams has high praise for Ireland's CJ Stander

"The only way for me to do that is to play as hard as I can in the Munster and Irish jersey."

The Standers got to see their son play international rugby in the flesh when he played twice against the Springboks in June.

While things didn't quite go to plan when he was harshly sent off for a late, high charge into his old U-20 team-mate Patrick Lambie in Cape Town, he responded after his one-week ban with a strong performance in Port Elizabeth.

Two weeks ago in Dublin, it was a different experience.

His mother has visited before, but this was the first time his father had been able to take a prolonged break from the farm.

Having enjoyed Lansdowne Road in full voice, this evening they'll get a taste of Thomond Park at its best as they attend the Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse to cheer on their son.

"They said it was one of the most enjoyable games to watch, they enjoyed the support and said the fans clapping their hands, cheering and staying quiet while people are going for the posts… it's unbelievable," says Stander.

"For my dad to see that for the first time was special, he was crying the whole time after the match… he was emotional. It was good to have him over.

"I had a bit of an off-week last week, it was good to show them what I've done and who's been looking after me and that I'm being looked after.

"For parents, they want to see that you're being looked after; it doesn't matter that you're a grown man or a kid.

"They see that I'm well settled-in and looked after and they're just saying thank you to everyone for the opportunity that I got. It's good to show them how I feel about this place. About Limerick, Munster and Ireland.

"To show them around the country last week was really good, it was good to almost get their seal of approval and to see that they're happy with me being here.

"They put a lot of work into me, a lot of time and values. I wanted to show them that I'm enjoying my rugby and I'm in a great place; that everyone's looking after me."

That week off was just reward after Stander put in a record-breaking shift for Ireland during the Six Nations.

No-one has ever taken on as much ball as he did over the course of a tournament: 104 times he took the ball in to contact, part of a relentless desire to work that he will carry into today's clash.

"Normally after a Test match, the Sunday after a win you feel great and after a loss you don't want to get out of the bed sheets, you just want to stay in a dark room," he says of the toll that workload takes.

"I can feel it on a Monday, that's the sorest point. I feel like I have done a lot of work, and I know if I didn't do a lot of work and I'm not sore then I'm disappointed in myself.

"That's a good feeling, because if I have that feeling after a weekend then I know I've put in a hard shift for the boys and for the team and for the coaches."

Stander came second in the voting for the player of the tournament award, but overall he reflects on the tournament with frustration.

"It was trying. I felt that we - or I - didn't pitch up against Scotland. I didn't have a good game," he says. "And then you're on your heels for the rest of the Six Nations, because the Grand Slam is gone and you need to win all of your games to get somewhere.

"You get so close for the Wales week and you lose the game, you go into a game against England that could have been a decider… it was trying, you never knew what was going to happen next because it was tough.

"I felt there were a few opportunities that we left on the pitch where we could have won matches and we could have won the competition.

"The good thing is that we can learn a lot out of it. It's my first time being second, it's still a great achievement. The competition is unbelievable, the matches were up there with the best Tests I've played in and you need to be on top of your game all the time.

"If we could have been there all the time, if we'd been consistent then we could have had a big win in Dublin.

"It's always good to end the campaign on a win, so that when you get together next time you don't have to go through that torture of the loss and what you got wrong.

"Finishing up, there's no closure really. You play the game on Saturday, you have breakfast and chill together on Sunday and then you spread out to your provinces. The win gives you closure: you don't have it in your head about what you did wrong or well."

Stander's performances have put him firmly in the frame for a Lions slot and a customary strong performance against Toulouse today should seal his place on the plane.

It is, he acknowledges, an ambition to make the squad but it is well down the priority list this week.

"It's not something you can think of in a week like this," he says. "I know there's a lot of players here like me who haven't won anything with Munster. I haven't won any senior cups.

"We sat down at the beginning of the year and we put down goals and I think the Lions is important, but it's at the end of the season and a big thing to work towards but the big thing for us as a group and for me personally is to get this Munster team, to get this band of brothers to a point when we're winning trophies.

"That's the biggest drive for the next part of the season."

The mission continues at Thomond Park this evening and among the Brave and the Faithful will be two proud parents who have been watching on at a distance ready to throw their voice behind the cause.

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