CJ Stander: If I get the chance to play for Ireland I'll sing anthem with all my heart
Former South African U20 captain tells Cian Tracey that he's enjoying life with Munster and explains why he will relish pulling on green jersey
The hushed tones of the South African accent remain as strong as ever but the words that are spoken come across like those of a man who has been in Ireland all his life.
"I hope I wasn't too difficult to understand," CJ Stander smiles after a conversation that lasted almost 45 minutes but rather felt like 10.
He had nothing to worry about, he was understood loud and clear.
The well-spoken Stander takes pride in his agricultural upbringing in a remote part of George in Western Cape. From an early age, he learned the meaning of hard work.
Despite being a champion discus thrower during his teenage years, Stander made the decision to park his Olympic dream and focus more on rugby. Seven years later, he's sitting in a Limerick cafe without a single regret, surrounded by what he now considers to be familiar faces.
Making those sort of mature decisions is something Stander had to grow used to quickly. A contract offer was slow to come from Super Rugby giants, the Bulls, and once Shaun Payne sounded out Munster's interest, the decision was made and with it went any desire to ever play for his home country.
Stander captained the Baby Boks (U20s) at the 2010 Junior World Cup while four months prior to arriving in Ireland in 2012, he was called up to the Springboks training squad ahead of the inaugural Rugby Championship campaign.
Signed by Munster as a project player, after next year's World Cup Stander will be eligible to play for Ireland and for the once senior Springbok lying in wait, it is a time that can't come soon enough.
"I remember in the beginning when I came here, I just said I want to play for Ireland," he says.
"As the seasons go by, it's always in the back of my mind. I want to play for Ireland, for sure.
"When I came over to Ireland, my goal was to stay here for as long as I can. Munster backed me so I want to back them.
"I want to push myself with Munster and be the best player I can be for the next year and then see what happens after that. If there's a chance (to play for Ireland), then great."
The IRB's residency laws aren't exactly wholly welcomed in every quarter but from speaking with Stander, his passion to wear an Irish jersey evidently burns strong.
The sight of his compatriot Richardt Strauss bellowing Amhran na bhFiann against his own country two years ago was an image that will live long in the memory of plenty of Irish fans and it is also one that Stander fondly remembers.
Strauss' decision to sing the Irish anthem was one that wasn't welcomed by some back in South Africa but as Stander explains, he would do exactly as the Leinster hooker did, if given the opportunity.
"I met Richardt after I arrived here. He said it was the best feeling ever for him - to play international rugby for Ireland.
"He wanted to play for Ireland and I just asked him what the vibe was like. He said it was the four provinces coming together to win and that's something I want to be a part of.
"The South African guys always find some dirt to slap on you, especially if something like that happens. But I just think from a personal point of view, I just feel so part of this culture, this city and this country.
"I talk about Ireland as my home now. It's my place. If I get the chance, I'll act the same as Richardt did - I'd sing the anthem with my full heart. If trouble comes from South Africa, they didn't back me so that's their fault," he adds.
With the Springboks arriving in Dublin this week for Saturday's autumn international against Ireland, there is absolutely no sense of split loyalties in Stander's head. His decision has been made and that's final.
"I'm going to be at the game," he points out as if there was a chance that he wouldn't be.
"Johan Van Graan, the Springboks forwards coach is coming to visit me a few days before the game. I'm good mates with him.
"We'll have some fun but I'm full Irish now. I won't wear Irish gear at the game but I'll be supporting them."
There was a point last season, that Stander's Irish dream was close to being shattered. He was struggling to get into Rob Penney's side and had barely been given a chance in Europe since his arrival.
With his contract nearing an end, he "stressed" about where his future would lie and with plenty of calls for him to return home to South Africa, Stander knew he had to take control of his own destiny if he wanted to represent Ireland.
A new two-year contract duly arrived last January and since then, he hasn't looked back. Penney has been replaced by Anthony Foley, who has brought a more traditional type of game plan - something that is a much better fit for Stander.
"I started stressing when I was out of the team about getting a new contract. There's so much competition for places here so I knew it was going to be tough, but it was a big relief when I was offered it," he says.
"I knew before every Heineken Cup week that I wasn't going to be playing because I wasn't registered and that was mentally tough. You have to stay positive though.
"I was just thinking I needed to make a squad and then make an impression. I pride myself as a positive guy and I always want to be the best.
"Last season, we were playing a more southern hemisphere, New Zealand-type of game where you had to be out on the wings, on the edges, linking with the backs.
"This year, I feel more at home and more comfortable. The fans have been unbelievable in the way that they've picked me up when things might not have been going so well.
"The game plan is very different now. I think Axel knows what he's doing. I'm trying to get the ball in my hands and make some good carries. It's suiting me more this year for sure."
Stander has lost almost a stone in weight since last season, which he admits has been a major factor in his impressive current form.
In both of Munster's Champions Cup games this season (Sale and Saracens), he has been the highest-ranked ball carrier on the pitch, while the sight of him swatting opponents aside has become a trademark of the bruising 24-year-old.
Watching on from the outside isn't something Stander does well but he's happy to bide his time in order to prove himself to the Irish public - should his opportunity come with the national side.
He'll watch this weekend's game in the stands, amongst the home supporters - that thick South African accent shouting for the green of Ireland will be from a man who feels just as passionate as those around him.
That passion is something Stander is hoping will be understood just as much as his accent.
CJ Stander profile
Born: April 5th 1990
Place of birth: George, South Africa
- Married to Jean-Marié Neethling, the sister of Ryk Neethling, who won a gold medal in the 4×100m freestyle relay at the 2004 Olympics
- Won a gold medal in discus at the U-17 Commonwealth Junior Games
- Captained South Africa U-20s at the 2010 Junior World Championship
- Trained with South Africa prior to the 2012 Rugby Championship but failed to make the final squad
- Signed for Munster in June 2012
- Made his Munster debut against Scarlets on November 25, 2012
- Scored two tries on his first start for Munster against Glasgow Warriors in Thomond Park on December 1, 2012
Early struggles at Munster:
"The coaches sat me down and told me I needed to improve my work rate and become more comfortable in the team environment. But now I pride myself on my work rate."
Ireland versus South Africa:
"The Springboks have a lot of big names but I think it's going to show where guys are because it's a year before the World Cup. Ireland have stepped it up over the last few years, they're fifth in the rankings now. They're really pushing it and they're playing good rugby. If they can show them what they have here and with the World Cup being in the northern hemisphere, it's going to be quite interesting going forward."
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