CJ Stander’s past, present and future collided in Limerick this week, when Johann van Graan arrived at Munster’s high-performance centre and introduced himself to the squad, writes Simon Lewis.
For many in the province, the incoming head coach and replacement for the soon-to-depart director of rugby Rassie Erasmus remains Johann who?
He is a mysterious 30-something from South Africa now charged with guiding Munster for at least the next two-and-a-half seasons, or so it says on the contract he has inked, subject to receiving a work permit.
Yet, for Stander, 27, the man 10 years his senior represents a reminder of his earliest days as a professional rugby player in Pretoria with the Blue Bulls, his Currie Cup side, and its Super Rugby big brother the Bulls.
His recollections of those times, as well as his impressions of van Graan this week bode well for Munster, but supporters will also be relieved to hear of Stander’s future at the province beyond his current deal, which runs out this summer.
Both men have come a long way since those days, when their careers overlapped for a couple of seasons, in 2010 and 2011. Stander, an U20 international, was finding his feet as a raw back-rower with dreams of becoming a Springbok, while van Graan, still in his 20s was making a name for himself, under the mentorship of Bulls boss Heyneke Meyer, as a versatile coach capable of managing and guiding some of the best players in world rugby to multiple Super Rugby titles.
The coach would, in 2012, be promoted by his long-term mentor Meyer to look after the Boks’ forwards and attack in a set-up that was about to determine Stander was too small to make it as a Test back-rower.
With Ireland and the British & Irish Lions, the naturalised Irishman has proven that was a wrong call and van Graan will reap the benefits with Munster, while Stander is excited at the prospect of an extended reunion.
“I worked with him in South Africa at the Bulls, so I’ve known him for a good few years,” Stander told the Irish Examiner this week. “He was the forwards coach for the Bulls at that stage. He’s an honest, hard-working man. He is one of those guys who knows the game more than anyone else. He has good ideas and can almost jump in anywhere, he knows the game inside out, so I’m looking forward to what he can bring to us.
"He was an impressive man back then. If you go through that forward pack at the Bulls at that stage, guys like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg, big names and they were taking most of their advice from him. He was leading them and knew more about the game than them, at that stage. He was an impressive man. He had a presence when he walked into a room.”
When Stander heard van Graan’s name linked with Munster, he admitted: “I was excited, because when I worked with him, I knew what he did and what the Bulls achieved. To win Super Rugby championships was unbelievable. I know what type of person he is and what he will bring to the table, that’s exactly what Munster is looking for and what will make us as a team click.”
With the paperwork still to be finalised on van Graan’s move to Ireland, it was a soft landing at the University of Limerick this week as he met and greeted the Munster staff and squad and observed preparations for this evening’s Champions Cup Pool 4 clash with Racing 92.
It will give him his first experience of a European night at Thomond Park, as well as inform him of the size of the task awaiting him when he returns to start work, the province hopes, in mid-November.
“He’s been shadowing Rassie and looking at what Munster stands for and what we’re doing. I think he’s doing it the right way, seeing how it works from the bottom up, so that when he properly arrives he can jump in and take over.
“For now, he’s just shadowing. It’s an important week and that’s good for him to see, because these European weeks look after themselves in terms of training and preparation. It’s all at 100% and its good for him to get an idea of what makes us tick as players.”
If there were any outlines of a van Graan masterplan they are being kept in-house, but Stander said: “I think that will happen with time. That will come when he comes over for the start of his job. For now, he’s just shadowing and greeting everyone, making sure he knows everyone and knows the set-up. He hasn’t spoken to us at all as a group, but when his paperwork comes through and he comes back over and gets settled in, then we’ll get his vision.”
Stander recognises that switching coaches midway through a season is not ideal, particularly while a Champions Cup pool campaign is progressing, but the fact Erasmus has said he is prepared to remain in situ in order to ensure continuity from his regime to the next is to be welcomed, as is the similarity in approaches between the old and the new bosses.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons why he’s here,” Stander said of van Graan. “We know they worked hand in hand together for a few years before Rassie came over, so it will be the same ideas, the same principles and same work ethic.
“So, a smooth transition and that’s important, because when a coach comes in halfway through a season, there’ll be a few bumps and bruises, but if we can have a smooth transition, it’s going to be great.”
That augurs well for another integral part of Munster’s future, the continuing service of one CJ Stander. Simon Zebo may be considering a move to France this summer at the end of his deal, but the No 8 is hoping to stay on and is just waiting to be asked.
“Oh, I’m up for contract? I didn’t know that,” joked Stander slyly, when the subject was raised.
“Look, it’s great to know that if Munster is in safe hands, then everyone is going to be looked after. Everyone has got the same goals and view on the game and where they feel Munster should go. So, yeah, I think we’re all looking forward to it and looking forward to the future.”
Specifically, though, is Stander looking forward to extending his stay with Munster beyond the summer?
“Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replied. “We haven’t even started talking yet. They normally talk to the big boys first and then the rest of us pick up the scraps, so we’ll see when they make contact.”
It is put to Stander, the Irish Lion, that he probably qualifies as one of the big boys in the Munster squad by now.
“No, no,” he countered. “I think Simon Zebo’s first on the list.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.