Monday 20 May 2019

The best of times and the worst of times here in South Africa

Player Diary

CJ Stander enjoyed returning to his hometown of George for last week’s game. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander enjoyed returning to his hometown of George for last week’s game. Photo: Sportsfile

Billy Holland

It's been a great tour so far to South Africa and hopefully we can wrap it up with a win this evening against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

It won't be easy, we know that, but we have trained well out here and our preparation has been good.

It's a huge game, a real eight-pointer and we can put some distance between us if we can get the win.

There are only a few in our squad who have played at altitude before and from what I can gather it is a difficult kettle of fish.

Your lungs go first and then your legs, and it is no surprise that the Cheetahs have beaten four teams in the last five minutes at home in Bloemfontein. So, we know what we are up against and it's going to be one of our bigger challenges this season in terms of away Guinness PRO14 games.

This is my first time back in South Africa since I played in the U-19 World Cup here in 2004. That's the tour when John McCall died after collapsing on the pitch. Not surprisingly, he has been in my thoughts a lot over the past couple of weeks.

Fittest I only knew John for a few weeks building up to that tournament. He was a lovely fella, the fittest player in the squad, a really superb No 7. He was from Armagh and really popular.

I was actually rooming with him. We were playing New Zealand in the opening game when he collapsed.

He was stretchered off and the lads who saw him knew it was serious but we couldn't believe it when he died. It was an awful shock.

I'll never forget going back to the room. Allen Clarke, who was the coach, came with me. His girlfriend had posted over his sunglasses because he had forgotten them and back then you just didn't go out and buy another pair.

The whole thing was heart-breaking. It was like Axel dying, it just doesn't leave your memory. The way John's family dealt with it gave us some strength because the way they looked at it he could have died in his sleep and that it was meant to be, and that he had fitted so much in during his 19 years. We decided not to play on in the tournament, we came home and that was the correct decision. It's hard to believe it's 14 years. I have not been back here since but it is a wonderful country.

The scenery is amazing, the people are so nice, you really feel like they are happy for you to be here.

We were in the gym the other morning - it's a public one - and this guy was on the treadmill and he jumped off and said, 'Thanks for coming, it's great to have an Irish rugby team here.'

Credit to the Munster management and all the backroom team, they have really prepared well for this trip.

We settled into our base in Cape Town last week and then travelled to George. That was a special occasion for CJ but the most important was that we got the win. Our sole focus was getting four points, it was great to get the bonus point. You look at how close it is between us and the Cheetahs and every point counts.

There was such a carnival atmosphere there. There was a local derby on beforehand and the place was nearly full. It was great for CJ, coming there as captain of Munster Rugby in front of his own crowd. It was a great for him and his family.

The singing coming from the Kings' dressing-room beforehand was so different. I was getting ready to go out on to the pitch to do my own warm-up and was doing a bit of stretching and heard them singing.

When you are over in Wales or Scotland you hear dance music coming from the dressing-room, the Welsh and Scottish teams have stereos blaring. Irish teams tend to be quiet; this would half an hour before a game and there were the Kings singing hymns. I just stood out in the corridor listening to it and it was just surreal. Obviously they are quite spiritual people and it means a lot to them and it was a big game. But it was just so different.

It was amazing too to come out and see so many Munster supporters there. They really are superb.

You're talking about a tiny town miles from anywhere in South Africa and you come out on the pitch and there's a few hundred of them there and the noise they are making is incredible.

My dad Jerry came out with three of his mates for a week. It's the first time he has been back in South Africa in 37 years.

He got his first cap for Ireland over here in 1981 and played twice against South Africa then.

So it has been a bit special for him coming back here 37 years later.

All we need to do now is wrap it up with a win this evening and hopefully we will produce a performance to do that.

Irish Independent

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