CJ Stander: I saw boys turn into men this year
Published 30/11/2016 | 02:30
When CJ Stander eventually pauses for a moment and reflects on the last year, he will surely wonder if he will face another that will evoke such a contrasting range of emotions.
Despair, sadness, disappointment, regret, pride, satisfaction, joy. 2016 had it all for the Munster player.
The novelty of collecting the personal accolades hasn't yet worn off as Stander last night added the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland player of the year award to his ever-expanding trophy cabinet.
For the last two seasons, the 26-year old has been named Munster's player of the year, he will certainly be a contender for the award again next year, while he was also picked up the IRUPA (Irish Rugby Union Players' Association) gong.
That's not to mention the countless man of the match awards but amidst all of the personal recognition, the last year has been one of the toughest of Stander's career.
Having nurtured him in his early days when he arrived in Limerick, Anthony Foley played a huge role in helping Stander settle and later flourish into the player you see today.
Foley's untimely death rocked the province and for a man who only arrived in Munster four years ago, Stander felt the heartache as much as anyone who was born and raised there.
It was Foley who made Stander his captain when Peter O'Mahony missed last season through injury and although it was another hugely proud moment for the South African-born flanker, a tough campaign followed. "That was big. When I got the tap from Axel I couldn't believe it," Stander recalls.
"It was special. You always think about it and all the boys who've captained the team and you think that's something you want to do one day.
"It was difficult in some stages. I think I lost more than we won but I've learned a lot and in our group there's a lot of boys that stepped up as leaders around me and now Pete's back that's good because there's a lot of people to help him. I've been there in those shoes and it's a difficult place to be if it's not going well.
"I think when you're a younger boy you go through a stage where you want to get a lot of pats on the back but when you get older and you get into a team you just want to perform for all the boys and for the team to help them win. That's really my biggest drive.
"My dad always used to say to me, 'Your boss is only getting born'. That someone is stepping up to make life difficult for you.
"He used to say it in Afrikaans but it means that the guy who's going to push you out of your position is only over your shoulder."
The advice from his father has moulded Stander into one of the most humble players in the country. Before every interview, he makes a point of going around the room to shake every journalist's hand.
At first, some were bemused by the gesture, simply because it is not the done thing in these parts but Stander understands the privileged position he is in and he is always keen to express that.
Such have been his performances for Ireland this year, it seems for all the world that Stander has long been a mainstay in the side.
It is easy to forget however that his debut only arrived in February when he was typically named man of the match in the Six Nations draw against Wales in Dublin.
Stander is a long way from his family's farm in George, South Africa and having represented and captained the Springboks at U-20 level, going back to his homeland with his adopted country in June was something that he had been relishing for some time.
It didn't go quite according to plan however. After just 21 minutes of Ireland's historic first win over the Springboks on South African soil, Stander was sent off for a dangerous tackle on his former team-mate Pat Lambie. It ended what should have been an unforgettable occasion for Stander.
"I would say this last year has also been one of the toughest years of my rugby career with all the stuff that happened," he admits.
"It was difficult just being in a (Munster) team needing to win week in, week out just to qualify for Europe.
"Then going out to South Africa to perform and then not getting the chance. At some stage you'd probably start doubting yourself but I've learned, from myself and from other people, to go from week to week and put it all behind you. The passing away of the big man, Axel, was very tough and I won't put that behind me but the South Africa thing, the red card, for me personally it was one of my worst days but the team won and for the first time won in South Africa so there was a bigger picture and it was about the team, not about yourself.
"That's the biggest thing I've learned in the last few years, as long as you work hard for the people around you, they'll pick you up, especially in this group and the group down in Munster. They're very special people."
After a successful November series, Stander returns to a rejuvenated Munster where confidence is high after the toughest of times.
His fellow South African Rassie Erasmus has also fully bought into the Munster way of life and Stander believes that the province are on the up again.
"I just feel that last year we lacked a bit of confidence and the management have brought that back in," he maintains.
"After Axel's death I think we realised that we're here now, we disappointed ourselves last year but we have an opportunity to do something.
"If it's to play for Axel or if it's playing for yourself or for the management or play for our jersey, that's back. That's something that I think we lacked a bit last year but it's come back.
"It was the worst week and the worst day for everyone when Axel passed away but it's as if he's still around us and he's reunited us as a team.
"Everyone is together whereas before, if you walked in two years ago and you saw an academy guy you might just wave.
"Now we're in the one centre and everyone knows everyone's name and we're all in one changing room. It's a different vibe. It's great to have.
"It was one of the toughest weeks but I could see boys turning into men. It was something a lot of people will never experience again in their lifetime and I think the group learned massively.
"There's another quote from my dad, he says, 'You're not playing tug of war, the only way you're winning there is if you're going backwards'.
"If you go backwards in rugby you're losing and for me it's the same in life, you need to go forward in anything you do."
Stander describes Schmidt as "the best coach in the world" and his performances over the last few months have left little doubt that he is now very much in the Kiwi's circle of trust.
It's been an unforgettable 12 months in more ways than one. The dark days will remain with Stander as a reminder of how tough times can get but as the dawn of a new year draws closer, it brings hope for an even brighter future.