Monday 5 December 2016

Last year's skipper keen to lead way without the armband

After memorable summer, powerhouse No 8 is planning to row in behind captain O'Mahony

Daragh Small

Published 02/09/2016 | 02:30

CJ Stander made his Irish debut against his native South African during the summer Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
CJ Stander made his Irish debut against his native South African during the summer Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

When home favourite Pat Lambie crashed to the Newlands turf after 23 minutes of South Africa's opening Test against Ireland in June, there was always going to be a major backlash.

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And if ever someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time, CJ Stander fitted the bill. A South African, he had made his Irish debut against his homeland in South Africa and then thundered into the hosts' No 10 in midfield.

There was no place to hide for the 26-year-old George native, and as referee Mathieu Raynal reached for his red card, the Munster back-row left the field to a chorus of boos.

But the dangerous tackle was just a dreadful piece of misfortune and Stander quickly apologised to his former team-mate Lambie, who he had floored while he attempted to block an up-and-under.

The next week was tough for the Stander family: the hardcore Springbok rugby faithful were outraged. But CJ served his one-match suspension and returned for Ireland's final Test.

Ireland won the opening game 26-20 despite their blindside's woes, and even though they lost both of the subsequent Tests, there was a lot of positives to be taken from their tour to South Africa.

And Stander is focusing on those too; he finally got to play in front of his grandfather, Frederick, in the final game in Port Elizabeth and that was always a massive dream of his.

"I will always be South African but I will be the best Irish South African I can be. I went over there to prove to myself and my family that I can play on the world stage, and against Springboks," says Stander.

"The big driver for me was playing in front of my mother's dad, he had never seen me playing rugby and he said he wanted to see me playing international rugby. I got a chance to do that.

"The suspension in the second game was tough to take. But luckily I got to play in front of my family after that. That was the game that my grandfather came down for.

"Just to see the emotion and how proud he is of me, his grandchild playing in front of him. And to get that chance to play for Ireland again. After the first Test it felt like a brand new opportunity for me.

"I couldn't remember a lot of what happened in the game at Newlands. But they are known for their booing. There was a few shouts here and there after what happened to Patrick but everyone saw that I didn't mean it.

Accident

"The week after that I went to Johannesburg and 90 per cent of the people said they knew it was an accident. In the second match against South Africa I walked out to the pitch and there was a lot of people that shook my hand. I left South Africa on a good note before I joined Munster. Everyone knew I had a good reason to leave. People knew I was a guy that doesn't go out to hurt people.

"But there is always a few that are proper full-on rugby supporters in South Africa. They are mad into their rugby and they were negative about it. My wife and my family got a few bad comments but they can handle that and we are through it now."

Stander has now been capped seven times at international level, and there are huge games to come against New Zealand in the autumn. But before that he has a busy schedule with Munster as they begin their season away to Scarlets tomorrow.

The former Bulls star has 25 tries in 81 appearances in the Munster red, and this season he feels he can propel his game to new heights after he was relieved of captaincy duty following the return of Peter O'Mahony.

"We always knew Peter would be captain, he is the leader in the team. He has a good leadership group around him. I form part of that and I will still lead the team in the way I play on the field and in training.

"It will give me more time to focus on my game on the field. Last year was probably one of the best years in my rugby career but also tough because I had to lead a team.

"We were struggling at some stages and you think it's your fault. But it's good being back and now I can concentrate on my game and also help him. I know how tough it can be in that position so I will always be there for a helping hand."

Now in the seventh week of his pre-season, Stander is on the verge of a massive 2016-'17. And as Munster move into their single training centre at UL, everything points towards a bright future for the province.

There has been more upheaval over the summer months with the introduction of a new coaching set-up. And although Stander has never worked closely with his fellow South Africans, new head coach Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber, before, he likes what he has seen so far.

"It's good working with Rassie. People always think I knew Rassie, but I had never really worked with him before this. But working with him and Jacques, it's two great guys coming into the set-up.

"They know the Munster tradition now and they have bought into that. And with their experience and their knowledge they can put that back into the team.

"It's a good vibe down here, everyone's happy and everyone knows what's expected of us in the next few seasons. They have brought in a good atmosphere to the squad, they are good people and they are very open and that's a good characteristic."

Irish Independent

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