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'The guy said, 'There's no way you play for Munster, you can't speak English''

CJ Stander talks about learning a new language, being told he was too small, and dealing with criticism.

CJ Stander is an ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings.
CJ Stander is an ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHEN CJ STANDER arrived in Munster in 2012, he couldn’t speak English.

Having been born and bred with Afrikaans as his first language, the barrier proved to be a difficult one in his first few years with the province.

Smiling as he reflects on those times now, Ireland international Stander recounts how his lack of English also left him in a few funny situations.

“I had been here for five days, staying in the Castletroy Park Hotel in Limerick, and Barry O’Mahony picked me up and we went down to Cork,” says Stander, speaking as he promotes a new video for the Tackle Your Feelings campaign.

“We had a great night, as we always do, and it was the 12 pubs of Christmas. At pub seven, we went to one place and the boys were all upstairs. I went down to get food, got outside, but then the guy on the door didn’t want to let me back in.

“I didn’t have anyone’s number so I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t know where to go, if I took a taxi to Limerick, I’m not going to make it. I was thinking I would have to sleep in the street for the night. The guy on the door said, ‘There’s no way you play for Munster, you can’t speak English, I’m not letting you up there.’

“I hadn’t played a game, so it was fair!

“The only thing I remembered was that the guys in Cork lived close to the Irish Guide Dogs place, where they trained the dogs in Cork. I got into a taxi and told the guy I wanted to go to the ‘Blind Dogs’. He eventually dropped me around two kilometres from the house and I saw Barry O’Mahony’s car, got into the house, and got home safe.

“That was the funny side of it. The boys thought they had lost me and I thought I had lost myself.”

There was a genuinely challenging aspect to it for Stander too. He found himself unable to speak up at Munster training and meetings, while he remained hesitant even as he improved his English by working on it at home with his wife, Jean-Marié.

“At the start, I could probably have a conversation to the extent that I could tell you where my family is from, but that’s it.

cj-stander Stander at Munster training in 2012. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It was tough. Personally, it was very tough. I would come home and tell Jean-Marié that at training I felt we could have done something, that I wanted to change something or say something, but I couldn’t express myself and say it.

“It took me a good two or three years to get that rolling where I was comfortable talking in a meeting. No one is going to laugh at you but I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t have the right words to say at that moment. I didn’t trust myself to just come out and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’

Stander took intensive lessons in English in those early days but quickly appreciated that there was no substitute for being in the thick of it.

“I realised I needed to speak Irish-English and get the language of the boys in the squad,” says the 30-year-old. “I just forced myself to listen to conversations, then came home and spoke to Jean-Marié.

“I remember going back to South Africa that summer and speaking English to someone and they were just like, ‘This guy is confused.’ I had the Irish slang with the South African accent and that was a new problem.

“Now when I go back to South Africa, people don’t understand me because of that Irish slang, so I’m in the middle of nowhere!”

Of course, Stander got into the swing of it as he set about making his name on the pitch with Munster – who he signed for after a difficult experience in South Africa.

A promising back row who had captained the South Africa U20s, the 6ft 1ins Stander was told he was too short to play in the back row and it was strongly suggested to him by the Springboks set-up that he needed to make a move to hooker.

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“I remember at that stage I was Googling everyone,” says Stander. “I was Googling Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Kieran Read.

“I had this massive sheet, my father-in-law got it for me, and I was looking at their weight and their height and their abilities and I was like, ‘I’m not far off here, I’m actually in the middle here somewhere.’

irelands-cj-stander Stander has been nominated for Six Nations player of the championship. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Then I realised it’s not me, so I just tried to pick up a little bit of weight. As soon as I started picking up weight and being over 110kg, suddenly they put you in a different category.”

Stander says he took a more methodical approach to his gym work and preparation, backing himself to continue in the back row, with Munster swooping to sign him from the Bulls.

It has been to Irish rugby’s great gain, although Stander says that he has had to deal with plenty of criticism here since making his Test debut in 2016.

“When I was younger, I probably dealt with it the wrong way,” says Stander. “I felt that I was taking it personally on top of me, ‘I have to be better, do this, this person is saying this.’ 

“Everyone has an opinion. If you listen to all of them, I don’t know where we would be in the world. In the video, I mention that I’ve got a process, I’ve got a good support structure. Firstly, before I go to them, I categorise it as a small problem or a big problem. If it’s a big one, then I just deal with it head-on. I try to control that situation. If I can, great. If I can’t, I make sure I talk to the people that I can talk to.

“If it’s a small problem, in the last few years, I just laugh it off. Humour, for me, is a way for me to get my head away from distractions like that. You can’t bog yourself down with those negative thoughts.”

Online criticism is, sadly, part and parcel of being a professional sportsperson but Stander says the time he has most taken issue with it was when his wife came under fire.

“After the World Cup… I don’t mind getting criticism as a player or person because I know what I stand for, what I can do, and what I have done – it’s quite easy for me to deal with criticism that way. 

cj-stander Stander has been named Munster's player of the year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But as soon as you attack a man’s family. The attack on my wife on social media was quite tough for her, I don’t think that’s fair. She’s not the person going out there and playing every game.

“I wish she could because she’s got a massive heart and is someone who would probably do a better job than me.

“You can’t attack someone’s family through them. It’s just a vicious circle and she’s trying to support me as a wife and friend.

“She can’t get stuff like that thrown her way. I don’t think it’s fair. That’s just my opinion, another opinion that probably doesn’t count.”

Tackle Your Feelings ambassador CJ Stander is encouraging people to rally around their loved ones and support one another, especially as we must now stay at home once again due to the Covid-19 global pandemic.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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