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family first

Stander gives currency to 'values' as he rides off into the sunset

The Munster and Ireland star is putting his family first by stepping away from rugby.

RETIREMENT IS ONLY ever an injury away in rugby, so those who name their exit point know it is a privilege to do so.

Rarely, though, do they pick as early a stage as CJ Stander has opted to bow out on today.

More often, rugby players ‘taking stock’ will be pondering a short window of opportunity to earn from the top tier of sport. They will plough on to a contract renewal or another club in another league where the numbers add up just a little higher even as their age rises towards the mid-30s.

Stander’s stocktake placed the focus on values that rugby often celebrates and congratulates itself on, but few have made such a dramatic lifestyle change as the Munster star announced today.

‘My commitment to rugby has started to take an unfair toll on my family,” says Stander in a long, thoughtful statement.

Lockdown has put a strain on everyone, but in a sporting context it was hard not to feel for the Standers when the bubble was put in place around the international rugby set-up.

Over last autumn and this Six Nations window, camp kept players in situ for stints of two to three weeks at a time. Stander’s wife, Jean Marie, and daughter, Everli, spent much of that time with family in South Africa and the number 8 was among the few players who opted against taking up a chance to leave camp confines.

This Saturday will mark the end of Stander’s presence in the international rugby bubble. He will bow out against England on the day of his 51st Test cap — not bad for a kid who was told he wasn’t big enough to make the grade.

Over the course of 200 (and counting) appearances since his arrival to Munster and Ireland in 2012, Stander has marked himself out firstly as powerfully exciting talent while leaving the lasting impression as a gent of the game.

A simple handshake before press conferences or simply walking down the corridor quickly became a trademark of Stander’s in a time when media-trained peers were becoming more suspicious or standoffish with anyone from outside ‘the environment’.

Indeed, Stander would have felt more cause than most to put up a wall between him and outsiders’ voices, from early criticism over a South African presence in the Ireland pack to the constant simmering of online abuse sent the way of Jean-Marie.

“For me it is tough when people start attacking your family on social media,” he said before lockdown last year, “because I believe that if you take on a man’s wife and you can’t do it in front of him then …. mmm, there is a line there that you step over.”

cj-stander-is-tackled-by-damian-penaud Stander runs through Clermont's Damien Penaud in December. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Criticism for a performance was something Stander could accept, beyond that is beyond the pale.

At his best, Stander is a supreme breakdown threat, a relentless workhorse and an explosive weapon in contact. In Joe Schmidt’s time, he was already a marked man as he arrived on the international stage and the former head coach tasked him with making the hardest of yards, marginal gains to tweak a ruck this way and that.

“I am not saddened by my decision,” Stander notes in his statement.

In a punishing sport, he has excelled in the most abrasive role. And so this opportunity to hang up his boots at 31, to ride down to a South African sunset and a George farm in the full of his health is a decision to be celebrated.

“I can now look back on a journey that offered me rewards, memories and surprises beyond anything I could have scripted for myself.”

– First published 12.10, 16 March

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