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'I owe him everything' - Stander pays emotional tribute to legend O'Connell

Munster’s powerful number eight said playing alongside POC is ‘one of the highest points in my career.’

Murray Kinsella reports from Thomond Park

“I GET EMOTIONAL talking about him… he’s a legend.”

Tears aren’t too common in post-match press conferences, but CJ Stander had to take a few deep breaths to hold them back following Munster’s win over the Ospreys at Thomond Park in the Guinness Pro12 semi-finals.

Paul O'Connell makes his way down the tunnel O'Connell heads down the Thomond Park tunnel one final time. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The talismanic Paul O’Connell admitted afterwards that this was probably the final time he’d line out for Munster in the hallowed Limerick stadium, and the occasion was clearly not lost on his teammates.

The depth of respect for O’Connell among the Munster squad is hardly surprising, and indeed it’s shared around much of the rugby world. The term ‘legend’ as often bandied about far too casually, but the 35-year-old has clearly earned that status.

Togging out alongside O’Connell is an honour that’s not been wasted on his teammates, particularly not on a day when the second row looked to be bidding farewell in typically low-key fashion.

When I was younger I watched him on TV and I never thought I was going to play with him,” said Stander at Thomond Park after Munster’s exciting 21-18 win.

“To play beside him for the last three years was unbelievable, especially playing the last game with him here.

“I was emotional before the game just to look at him, just to play with him. He’s a legend in my eyes and everyone’s eyes. He’s the type of guy you follow, it doesn’t matter what happens on the pitch.

“After rugby, he’s the type of guy you go to, he’s a leader, he’s a man’s man, he’s a man’s leader. You can describe him as a legend, I look up to him and he gave his best to the red jersey and I’m thankful to play with him. It’s one of the highest points in my career.”

Paul O'Connell leaves the pitch after the game O'Connell received a guard of honour from his teammates. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The image of Stander watching O’Connell as a youngster back in South Africa is a striking one, more so because the number eight is already well on his own way to being accepted as another of Munster’s favourite sons.

That didn’t always appear like it was going to be the case, particularly in a first season in which Stander struggled to convince former coach Rob Penney to include him in the starting team.

When asked what it is that makes O’Connell so notable a leader, Stander revealed that he might not still be at Munster were it not for the veteran’s words.

It’s everything,” said Stander. “The way he plays, he leads from the front. He makes speeches, but it’s in the small words he says, that motivation.

“I remember when I arrived I didn’t play that much in the first year. Every Monday when the team came out, he just told me to keep the faith, keep the faith.

“I owe him everything. I stayed here.”

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Murray Kinsella

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