CJ Stander: It was either going to Ireland or working on the farm - I chose Ireland
Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30
When Ireland's plane leaves Heathrow tomorrow and heads in the direction of Cape Town, CJ Stander would be forgiven for having a head full of emotions. Regret is clearly not one of them.
Next Saturday he will step on to the pitch at Newlands and line up for the anthems, searching for the familiar faces of his mother Amanda, father Jannie, his grandfather Frederick and his wife Jean-Marie and her family in the crowd.
That he will do so in the green of Ireland rather than the home strip of the Springboks is down to a choice he made as a younger man, one he is fully at peace with as he returns to the place he once called home.
He knows that a "few nasty Afrikaans words" are coming his way, but also knows that the decision he made was the right one for him.
It seems drastic now, but with then South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer urging him to convert to hooker he was ready to walk away and return to the family farm in George when former Munster full-back Shaun Payne got in touch and floated the idea of a move to Ireland.
"It came down to me going to the farm or going somewhere else," he recalls. "I was just emotionally drained, I couldn't fight this thing any more and I rang my Dad and I said 'look, you have to come up to Pretoria and talk to the people here because I can't take this'.
"He came up and had a meeting and afterwards he said, 'this is a shambles. If there's something else, go for it or you can come home to the farm. It's not going to be the same money, but at least you'd enjoy it'.
"I said thanks for that, played out my contract and moved on.
"We share everything so I told my parents that Munster had talked to me, they did their research and said it was a great opportunity; go.
"It is drastic when you look back on it now, to think about stopping playing rugby, but it didn't seem it at the time. I enjoy farming.
"I could have gone down to play where my brother Janneman is playing now or for a club called SWD Eagles. It would have been tough, but I wanted to be the best and it was going to take me a four-year cycle to become that.
"You want to be wanted. You get knocked down, you get knocked down and you just have to look for something else.
"Looking back, I would have regretted going to the farm, because the last four years I have enjoyed it so much and I started loving this game even more."
Growing up, Stander's ambition was to one day take over the 500 acre farm in George on the Western Cape, half-way between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth where this month's first and third Tests take place.
Rugby was a passion, but the 26-year-old paints a picture of a naive young man who loved the game but didn't understand that he could make a career out of it until his late teens.
He took it up as a six- or seven-year-old and things got serious when he boarded at Oakdale Agricultural in the small town of Riversdale an hour-and-a-half away.
There, he threw discus to a high level but his ability with a rugby ball was garnering attention, earning him provincial honours and ultimately recognition in the form of South African underage caps at U-16 and U-18 level before he was offered a professional contract by the Bulls.
"Dad bought my mum this white Mercedes and her driving me to games across the country put 495,000km on the car going to games and athletics every Saturday," he remembers.
"As a kid, I spent most of my time on the farm. With rugby, I started at six or seven and at that stage I was just bigger than anyone, so I just ran over everyone and it was easy.
"It's about 500 acres, a dairy farm. We milk about 350 Fresians and we grow vegetables. That's a big thing. My mum runs a poultry farm as well, so it's busy.
"My Dad still works at it seven days a week. We've about 150 workers, my dad's busy and my brother is close-by so he helps a bit."
All that farming had its benefits.
"I didn't really get to the gym until I was about 18 or 19, I did physical work on the farm and some days when I had a bit of back pain my dad would say 'well, that's my fault because I worked you too hard', but it gave me the natural strength, my muscle density," he says.
"From the discus, I got a lot of discipline because you train on your own and you have one coach. My coach was the headmaster, so sometimes he'd have to discipline some kid or go out to do something else, so I had to train on my own.
"At 12, everything for me was farming. It was just farm, farm, farm. I didn't really know that rugby could provide, what teams you could play for in the future.
"Then I got selected for this U-12 provincial team and that just opened my eyes, the whole group of people were passing the ball left and right. I was getting my hands the wrong way and people were laughing at me.
"I was a centre at that stage and I couldn't really pass, so it just opened my eyes and I started working with my mates on skills to get my passing 100pc."
That was the first eye-opening experience as to what he needed to do and Stander was hungry to improve his game.
When he got to the Craven Week, the high point of the South African schools game, he realised that he could no longer rely on his size and began working on his footwork and acceleration into contact.
The hard work got rewards and, while he wonders whether he might have enjoyed his last years in school more, he earned a professional contract in the capital.
"I was in an all-boys boarding farm school, the town we were in had a population of 4,000 people and then I moved to Pretoria where there's no farming in the area and suddenly there's nightclubs, places I'd never been to," he says.
"Going out to a pub, I'd never been before. It was a big shock in the first couple of weeks, but I got over that. Being away from the farm, we're a very close-knit family but I got a lot of experiences and enjoyed the four years I was there."
In 2012, having captained South Africa at the U-20 World Cup, he was invited to train with the senior side and despite his form for the Bulls he was being asked to change position.
"For sure, when I grew up as a youngster I wanted to play for the Springboks," he concedes. "That's your team, that's your country.
"Then, when I moved up and became professional; that's when the stuff started where I saw what was going on; who was getting picked and how it was all about size. I started pulling back and not enjoying watching them any more."
The conversations about shifting to hooker lasted for six or seven months and Stander said he was initially willing to give it a try, even if his heart wasn't in it. Payne offered him an alternative path.
"I knew it was on the table to play for Ireland one day and seeing how big rugby is in Ireland, the supporters, the culture. I was getting this feeling that I wanted to play for Ireland that I can't really describe," he says.
"It was a bigger feeling than I'd had for the Springboks, because when I was a youngster you think you want to play for that team but not really knowing how to get there.
"When I got here, it was a case of knowing that 'I need to do this, to work hard on this and this' and then I can make it."
It was a big leap to take and the first year was hard, but Limerick and Munster grew on the Standers.
Many will describe the next few weeks as a trip 'home', but he doesn't see it that way.
"We have the old quote 'Home is where the heart is' written on the wall at home in Limerick," he says.
"I would love to say the farm is home, but it's not. The last eight years, I'm there for a week or two weeks at a time and that's not enough. When I'm on vacation in South Africa, Limerick is home. My stuff is here.
"My life is here, my wife is here, my dogs, my family is here. Limerick and my house is my home. I've only been here for four years, but that's just the way I live."
On the morning of his Ireland debut against Wales, Jean-Marie called to the Shelbourne Hotel to drop off some things and wish her husband luck, but found him in a non- communicative trance.
"She said I was like a robot, I just stood there, took the stuff and left," he says. "That day was surreal, I felt like I could do anything.
"I remember getting my jersey in the team meeting, going down through the hotel and the support you get there; I was so emotional getting to the bus that I was one more clap away from crying.
Things will be different in South Africa and for all that his family are behind him, Stander knows what's coming at Newlands and he is determined to thrive on it.
"On that day it's going to be a different animal, to have your family there," he says. "That's the biggest drive for me, I haven't played international rugby live in front of them and to get the chance to do that will be the cherry on top of my career.
"When the anthems come out, we're standing there in front of a full, packed Newlands . . . It's a great opportunity to play in front of my family, to play against the Springboks who are one of the greatest teams in the world and I'm looking forward to it.
"I'll probably get a few nasty Afrikaans words, but I can understand and shrug it off. I've nothing to prove to anyone or myself. I want to go on from the Six Nations, to take up where I left off and play my game."
CJ Stander is an ambassador for Shadowball, a new ball designed to fine-tune a player's rugby skills. The balls are available to buy at Shadowball.eu and at Elvery's in Dublin. He will be hosting Shadowball Skills clinics in junior rugby clubs across the country