As the blockbuster Six Nations clash between England and Ireland looms on the horizon, CJ Stander is set to watch from afar with a mixture of emotions and a very different sense of perspective.
When those two international teams last went head to head almost a year ago to the day, Stander soaked up every moment in what was his final appearance for his beloved adopted nation.
The South Africa-born former Ireland number eight will always be an icon of Irish rugby, having featured in 51 Tests (winning 65 percent of them), while serving as an integral member of the squad that famously clinched the Grand Slam in 2018.
Retired at the age of 30
In the 2021 Six Nations, Stander remained central to the Ireland cause – playing every minute of the season – but it came against the backdrop of his surprise decision to retire from all forms of the game at the age of 30.
As fate would have it, Stander enjoyed a dream send-off as he produced yet another imposing performance to help Ireland clinch a memorable 32-18 victory over England at the conclusion of last year’s Six Nations campaign.
Since then, Stander and his family have relocated to the Western Cape town of Paarl in South Africa, with the former Munster superstar having quickly transitioned into a key role involving project planning and business procurement for a highly-successful construction company.
By all accounts, this new chapter of life has encompassed a steep learning curve, with Stander stepping into a wholly unfamiliar eight-to-five work day.
“All those lovely massages and naps that I used to have on my off days or on a big training week – they’re all gone,” he says with a laugh.
However, Stander is not the sort of character who looks back with any regrets.
“It honestly feels like a different life now,” he says. “I know it’s going to sound weird to say this, but when I retired, it was almost like a funeral. It represented the end of my previous life, I boxed it up and there was never a thought of going back…
“When I decided to make the cut from the game, that was it, I’m done. But I do get emotional sometimes, like when I look back at old games such as the Six Nations Grand Slam when we beat England, and seeing the clips of that when we got our medals. I get emotional not because I miss it, but because it was such a special occasion.
“At the end of the day I’ll always have those memories to reflect on and share with my family. I never thought I’d reach the levels I did as a professional rugby player, and I’m really proud of what I was able to achieve. It’s a lesson I want to pass on to others and young players: what you can achieve is unlimited if you just go out there and work hard.”
As it is, Stander’s rugby journey was undoubtedly defined by “hard work”. After progressing through the traditional South African rugby pipelines that saw him feature at Craven Week, for the SA Schools team and ultimately for the Junior Boks, his senior career plateaued at the Bulls amid now well-publicised suggestions that he should move from the back- row to hooker.
Yet, Stander to his guns, and seized and seized an opportunity to join Munster in 2012. After quickly immersing himself in the culture of the club he found a welcoming “new home” where he would put down roots in a career – and life- change move.
“I was with Munster for such a big part of my life, and you could almost say that they changed me as a human being and made me understand what it takes to be a professional,” he reflects. “I had a great opportunity to go over there as a young guy, and to get that experience, to learn to buy into a culture and to be part of something bigger, and that’s what I experienced at Munster and playing for Ireland.”
By the time he hung up his boots, Stander had established himself as one of the most highly-regarded loose forwards in world rugby, while becoming a folk hero at Munster where he was named the Men’s Player of the Year on no less than three occasions .
And although there is no doubt that the dynamic back-rower could have continued playing for several more years, he has always maintained it was the right time to step away from the game, and prioritise other personal and family plans.
Stander retired entirely “on his terms”, and insists he is at peace with the decision to have left the rugby spotlight when he did, and “with a lot of joy in my heart.”
“You do see guys who retire, go back, retire, play again. Obviously, there are different reasons and you can think, ‘should I, shouldn’t I?’ I probably have a bit more in me. I’m still fit and strong, and running 10kms with my wife on the weekend. But I honestly had a sense that I had dipped slightly in my performance towards the end of my career, and I felt guilty – almost to myself, not to anyone else – that I couldn’t maintain that top level. That made the decision easier. I see guys playing now and I think to myself, ‘it’s tough there! I wouldn’t be able to do it any more’. So I’ve had no regrets so far, and I don’t think I ever will.”
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