CJ Stander put in a lot of hard work to get where he is today and the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year for 2016 believes it will take an awful lot more toil to stay ahead of the pack.
The Munster and Ireland forward, who last night added the Guinness Rugby Writers award to similar honours last May as Munster’s and IRUPA’s Players’ Player of the Year, is acutely aware of just how competitive it is for places in both his provincial and national team back rows.
Yet Stander, 26, sees no danger in him becoming complacent, no matter how many awards are filling up his mantlepiece in Limerick. For he has had the wise words of his father Jannie ringing in his ears since he was a boy helping out on the family’s 500-acre farm in George, South Africa.
“The biggest thing for me now is to drive on from here and not settle or be part of the furniture. You always have to push on and create something new. My dad always used to say to me ‘your boss is only getting born’, that someone is stepping up to make life difficult for you. He used to say it in Afrikaans but it means the guy who’s going to push you out of your position is only over your shoulder.
“So that’s a big drive for me not to think I’ve done enough. I just want to keep on performing for the team, that’s important for me.”
Stander has embarked on a steep learning curve since leaving South Africa having been told he was too small to make the grade as a Springbok back rower. He joined Munster from the Blue Bulls in October 2012, at first struggling to adapt to Irish rugby as he and fiancée — now wife — Jean-Marie, settled in Ireland. Yet the mantras of his father have stayed with him and his growing stature on the field for Munster and his qualification to represent Ireland are evidence of paternal advice well heeded.
A Test debut came at the first opportunity following his three-year residency as Joe Schmidt capped him in the 2016 Six Nations opener against Wales, Stander marking his first appearance with a man of the match show.
He was an ever present at blindside flanker during the Championship while his provincial skipper Peter O’Mahony rehabbed a serious knee injury and Stander also assumed the Munster captaincy in the Cork man’s absence. He credits focusing on better recovery after games and trainings for transforming him into a Test-quality back-row, as well as turning his weaknesses into strengths, again driven by his father Jannie’s words. “You just need to make sure you’re at the front of the pack. The middle of the pack isn’t a bad spot but you can easily slip back to the end of the pack and you’re fighting an uphill battle.
“Then for the next few years, I can’t just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Everyone’s doing it or they’re going to be doing that so I need to look at my game and see if it’s speed I need to work on or if it’s defence or my carries. I need to see where I can improve and there’s good honesty in the coaching staff at Munster and Ireland so if I have a weakness, they’ll tell you and we’ll work on it.
“That’s all positive. You have to go forward. There’s another quote from my dad, he says ‘you’re not playing tug of war, the only way you’re winning there is if you’re going backwards’. If you go backwards in rugby, you’re losing and it’s the same in life — you need to go forward in anything you do. Luckily, my wife knows at this stage. I can’t walk the dog without it being a competition, I need to win with my dog to be the first one into the door.”
Stander has enjoyed plenty of highlights in 2016 in addition to his Test debut, with getting the Munster captaincy up there as much as beating the All Blacks in Chicago four weeks ago.
It has also been a difficult year in many ways. Being controversially sent off during the first Test against his native South Africa in Cape Town in June was a personal low while emotions are still raw following the sudden death of Munster head coach Anthony Foley.
“I would say this last year has also been one of the toughest of my rugby career, with all the stuff that happened. It was difficult just being in a team needing to win week in, week out just to qualify for Europe. Then going out to South Africa to perform and then not getting the chance. At some stage you’d probably start doubting yourself but I’ve learned.
“The passing away of the big man, Axel, was very tough and I won’t put that behind me but the South Africa thing, the red card, it was one of my worst days but the team won and for the first time won in South Africa so there was a bigger picture and it was about the team, not about yourself. You can’t go into a corner and feel bad for yourself if you’re not going to perform the next week (through suspension) you still have to give the boys in green your best training during the week, get out of your shell.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned, as long as you work hard for the people around you, they’ll pick you up, especially in this (Ireland) group and the group down in Munster. They’re special people, very special people.”
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