Sunday 22 April 2018

'I said to CJ he must stay in Ireland if he can...he can come back to bury me' - Stander family grateful for opportunity

CJ Stander with his parents Jannie and Amanda in the family home, which is packed with memorabilia of his career to date Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
CJ Stander with his parents Jannie and Amanda in the family home, which is packed with memorabilia of his career to date Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

John Fallon

It took some time to realise that the cloud of dust coming towards us was being caused by a pick-up truck but once it rolled alongside it was obvious that this was CJ Stander's dad; a big wave of the right hand out the window said as much as he swung around on the road and pointed his vehicle back in the direction of the farm he had just come from.

We are parked close to George Airport in the Western Cape as the town gets ready to stage its first PRO14 match as the Southern Kings move out of their Port Elizabeth base for the first time in the competition and, by coincidence, head to the town in their franchise area where Stander is from.

The match was big business in the Stander household, with parents Jannie and Amanda and their 24-year-old son Janneman having friends and extended family over for the occasion.

It's a day Jannie thought he would never see, especially when the club he supported for years, the Blue Bulls, cut the eldest of his boys from their squad six years ago.

Stander was told he was too small to be an international despite starring for South Africa at the U-20 Junior World Cup for two years, with future Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, then in charge of the Blue Bulls, wanting him to convert to hooker in an effort to make it.

But an offer had come in from Munster and even though the Standers knew nothing about Ireland, it was decided this was the best option.

"It cost me a lot of money and time," said dad Jannie. "I went there four times in three months to the Bulls. Heyneke wanted to make CJ a hooker. There was a discussion and I was angry and I said to Heyneke that 'you can't tell a child you will make him a Springbok but he must play hooker'.

"We had to give Munster an answer at 5pm that day but we did it the next afternoon at 2pm. And then the Bulls were saying, 'why didn't you tell us', but I think the Bulls thought CJ was a cheap catch, a farm boy. I think they didn't realise he would go further for his career," said Jannie.

Some of the memorabilia Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Some of the memorabilia Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The Standers could hardly have asked for a better outcome and back home in the Western Cape, each Munster and Irish match is watched by family and friends in the sprawling farmhouse where CJ grew up with his dad, mum Amanda and brother Janneman, who is three and a half years younger.

Cauliflowers

The farm, which employs more than 140 people, produces tens of thousands of broccolis and cauliflowers in addition to milking 200 Friesian and Jersey cows.

It is fertile ground, with the Outeniqua mountains on one side and fresh breezes from the nearby Indian Ocean on the other.

CJ's grandfather bought the farm after coming from the dry lands on the other side of the mountains and with his mum and dad coming from rugby families in George, it was inevitable that CJ and his brother would garner a love for the sport.

The family have been supporters of the Blue Bulls for decades even though they are based 1,300km away in Pretoria, so the rejection cut deep after he had been accepted into their academy after his education at Blanco Primary School in George and Oakdale Agricultural High School, a short distance away in Riversdale.

"CJ built himself up when he was young," said his dad Jannie. "We had to load bags in the truck, 20-30kg bags and he would just keep going all day. He had no gym, he had no need for one, he would pick up the stones and bags and fire them up on the truck, even when he was as young as seven or six. He was always a goer."

Stander is probably the best import of the professional era given what he has achieved with Munster and Ireland, but back in South Africa Jannie is in no doubt what CJ must do in appreciation.

"I said to CJ he must stay in Ireland if he can. There is no need for him to come back until I am on my sickbed, or he can come back to bury me.

"But I told him he must stay in Ireland because they are the ones who have given him his butter and his bread. When the Blue Bulls didn't think he was good enough for rugby, it was Ireland who gave him the chance.

"I have told him if he wants to stay in Ireland after rugby that is good, but if he wants to come back the farm is there for him.

More of the memorabilia Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
More of the memorabilia Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

"I am very proud of him and his brother Janneman. CJ is well-mannered, he gets that from his mum. He gets this from me (punching one hand hard into the other)!"

Jannie and Amanda finally made it to Ireland a year ago, and they loved the place. They are planning a trip for next March or April.

"I saw snow for the first time since 1972 when I visited Ireland," said Jannie. "CJ called me out early in the morning to say it was snowing. I stood there without even my shirt on looking at it. The last time I saw snow was in 1972 in South Africa when I was a child.

"I had never heard of Ireland until CJ went there, I knew nothing about the country. But when I went there last year for the first time I found they were just like us. They laugh about a joke, they drink beer and they are lovely people. And they like their food, I love Irish cheese. I'm a brandy drinker myself - my wife doesn't drink - but I liked the Guinness when I tasted it. Niall O'Donovan, the team manager, taught me how to drink it."

The rambling farmhouse is pocketed at every corner with photos of the two sons and their rugby exploits.

There are animal hides on the floor and the spoils of hunting seasons adorn the walls and fill half a dozen deep freezers in the shed.

The jerseys and caps of the sides the two sons have played for - younger brother Janneman is captain of the local SWD Eagles in George and an accomplished flanker - are dotted around the walls, including a Tipperary GAA jersey which a farming group brought to Jannie when they visited.

Jannie, a huge man who, remarkably for his size, was a winger, while CJ's mum Amanda is a former 400m champion athlete, with rugby going back several generations in both families.

They get all the Munster and Ireland matches on television, friends and neighbours come in and the huge braai (BBQ) is lit with timber from the farm and then all sorts of meats, a lot of it hunted, are cooked.

There are ample seats and armchairs around the big television in a room with a giraffe hide on the floor and an elephant's foot as a small table.

"We sit down here to watch the matches, I watch all of them," added Jannie. "We have friends over, have a braai and drink and enjoy the matches."

They enjoyed the 39-22 win over the Kings on Saturday and will head by road to Bloemfontein later in the week for the game against the Cheetahs.

Amanda said it was difficult to see CJ go, not least because she was the one who drove him and Janneman to training, matches and other events.

"He did good for himself and we are proud of him. It was very difficult for me to see him go. I was 24-7 alongside his brother at rugby, school and everything else. When they were playing for the schools I was at each game. I got in my car, drove to Cape Town or wherever.

"But we are delighted for him. We keep in touch and it doesn't matter how late or when it is. Early in the morning of a game I send him a WhatsApp and then later on we talk. If it's not too late after the game we talk."

In time CJ will probably return to the farm but who knows how many more honours he will have in the bag by the time he heads down the dusty road to the farmhouse after leaving Ireland for the last time.

Irish Independent

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