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The criticism that breaks the heart of CJ Stander... and the hint that he might not yet be finished playing rugby

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Soon-to-retire CJ Stander bid adieu to the Irish nation on Friday night with an appearance on the country’s biggest TV chat show, The Late, Late Show, to mark the end of a nine-year stay at Munster which resulted in him going on to enjoy a 51-cap Ireland career which also saw him capped for the 2017 Lions in New Zealand. 

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The 31-year-old South African became Irish-eligible in time for the 2016 Six Nations championship, running out for a Dublin debut versus Wales after serving the requisite 36-month residency period that World Rugby will now increase to 60 months at the end of 2021. 

Ireland’s use of project players, uncapped signings from overseas who can become Irish-eligible on the basis of living in the country for three years, has at times been an emotive subject with critics of the system bemoaning how players who come through rival rugby systems are parachuted into the Ireland set-up ahead of locally produced players.    

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It was last November when New Zealander James Lowe became the eleventh foreigner to be capped for Ireland since the IRFU embraced the project player scheme in 2012 when capping South African Richardt Strauss.

Some players have been a success in terms of the number of caps they went on to win, others not so successful, and when it was put to Stander if the criticism over him being a South African in an Ireland jersey bothered him, he got emotional with his reply. 

“It actually breaks my heart,” he said nine weeks after he last represented Ireland in their Six Nations win over England in Dublin. “I wanted to show that I am proud, so proud, playing for Munster firstly and you get a chance to play in the Irish jersey because a lot of people spent a lot of time in me as a person. I felt it from day one and that is probably the one thing that I am going to miss, the culture that we have in Ireland that everyone looks after everyone and then there are a few people that think that it’s not okay for me to be there.

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“The players who came after me and before me did the same thing, came in, played their hearts out for that jersey and wanted to give something back. It’s a tough job firstly to be there and to perform and then to have negative comments coming your way like that… you can block it out but it always comes to you. If someone sees you on the streets and talks about it, asks you the question, it breaks my heart because they don’t know me and they don’t know what my goals were and what I wanted to achieve.”

Stander had been a valued centrally contracted IRFU player since agreeing to a three-year deal in December 2017 but rather than take up their offer to extend that agreement, the back-rower decided early in 2021 to spurn that opportunity and instead retire at the end of this season with Munster.  

Given his reputation as a player who was rarely if ever injured during his career, it was felt when it was announced in March that retirement had come much too soon for Stander and there was speculation that he might eventually re-emerge at one of the South African franchises sometime in the future, an idea he appeared to fuel when remarking on The Late, Late Show: “Yeah, I think I have got a lot of rugby left in me for sure. I’d say at least seven years.”

Stander then went on to explain why he opted to retire and will soon head home to South Africa from Ireland. “I was in South Africa during the lockdown, I got an opportunity to go back and spend time with my family and realised what is important for me, took stock of where I want to be in a few years. 

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“Our daughter Everli, having her there and seeing how she interacted with the grandparents, I went to my grandparents’ grave and I stood there and thought I missed their funerals, but that was not the problem. The problem that I was struggling with was I missed the last nine or ten years of their lives. That was tough, very tough, and I said to Jean-Marie [his wife] that I don’t want to take that opportunity away from Everli at all.”

 

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The criticism that breaks the heart of CJ Stander... and the hint that he might not yet be finished playing rugby

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