It doesn’t take long to work out how CJ Stander is so grounded when you spend time in the company of his family outside George in the Western Cape.
Dad Jannie, mum Amanda and 24-year old brother Janneman treat you as if you have just made their day by coming to the family farm, a 1,100-acre enterprise that produces tens of thousands of broccolis and cauliflowers in addition to milking 200 Friesian and Jersey cows.
It is fertile ground, with the Outeniqua mountains on one side and fresh breezes from the nearby Indian Ocean on the other.
CJ’s grandfather bought the farm after coming from the dry lands on the other side of the mountains and with both his mum and dad coming from rugby families in George, it was inevitable CJ and his brother would discover a love for the sport.
Dad Jannie has always been a Blue Bulls supporter, even though they are 1,300kms away in Pretoria, so it was a particularly proud moment when CJ was accepted into the academy there after his education at Blanco primary school in George and Oakdale Agricultural High School a short distance away in Riversdale.
“CJ built himself up when he was young,” said his dad Jannie. “We had to load bags in the truck, 20-30kg bags and he would just keep going all day. He had no gym, he had no need for one, he would pick up the stones and bags and fire them up on the truck, even when he was as young as six or seven. He was always a goer.”
But despite playing two years for the South African U-20s, future Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who was in charge of the Bulls then, deemed Stander to be too small and wanted to convert him to a hooker if he was to stay on.
“It cost me a lot of money and time,” said Jannie. “I went there four times in three months to the Bulls. Heyneke wanted to make CJ a hooker. There was a discussion and I was angry and I said to Heyneke that ‘you can’t tell a child you will make him a Springbok but he must play hooker’.
“We had to give Munster an answer at 5pm that day but we did it the next afternoon at 2pm. And then the Bulls were saying ‘why didn’t you tell us’, but I think the Bulls thought CJ was a cheap catch, a farm boy. I think they didn’t realise he would go further for his career,” said Jannie.
They had never heard of Munster until CJ decided it was the best place to head after the Bulls’ rejection. Munster had gone to South Africa looking at a winger but came home with a player who is probably the best import of the professional era when it’s taken into account what he has contributed to province and country.
The Standers are extremely grateful to Munster and Ireland and Jannie is in no doubt what CJ must do in appreciation.
I said to CJ he must stay in Ireland if he can. There is no need for him to come back until I am on my sickbed, or he can come back to bury me. But I told him he must stay in Ireland because they are the ones who have given him his butter and his bread. When the Blue Bulls didn’t think he was good enough for rugby, it was Ireland who gave him the chance.
“I have told him if he wants to stay in Ireland after rugby that is good, but if he wants to come back the farm is there for him.
“I am very proud of him and his brother Janneman. CJ is well-mannered, he gets that from his mum. He gets this from me (punching one hand hard into the other!).
Jannie and Amanda, who employ 140 people on their farm where all the planting and harvesting is done by hand — they pick broccoli and cauliflower every Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the year to supply a contract to Woolworths — finally made it to Ireland a year ago, and they loved the place. They are due back next March or April.
“I saw snow for the first time since 1972 when I visited Ireland,” said Jannie. “CJ called me out early in the morning to say it was snowing. I stood there without even my shirt on looking at it. The last time I saw snow was in 1972 in South Africa when I was a child.
“I had never heard of Munster until CJ went there, I knew little about the country. But when I went there last year for the first time I found they were just like us. They laugh about a joke, they drink beer and they are lovely people. And they like their food, I love Irish cheese. I’m a brandy drinker myself — my wife doesn’t drink — but I like the Guinness when I tasted it. Niall O’Donovan, the team manager, taught me how to drink it.
“We went to Australia and Tasmania and Argentina before. But when I arrived in Ireland it felt like home because you see the cattle and sheep. There was just one problem, I see sheep with a blue stripe on his back and other has yellow, other one is red. I ask the farmer what is this, he said the yellow is my sheep, the blue is the neighbour’s sheep. That’s the way they do it. But the same people they are working hard. It’s beautiful there.”
A bottle of moonshine is produced while we are standing in the kitchen — CJ is horrified when he arrives later and learns that his dad has been offering it to the Irish visitors — while a speciality using the butt of a sheep’s tail is cooked on the big fire.
Munster and Ireland matches are big occasions around the rambling farmhouse which is pocketed at every corner with photos of the two sons and their rugby exploits.
There are animal hides on the floor and the spoils of hunting seasons adorn the walls and fill half a dozen deep-freezers in the shed.
The jerseys and caps won by the two sons — younger brother Janneman is captain of the local SWD Eagles in George and an accomplished flanker himself — are dotted around the walls, including a Tipperary GAA jersey which a farming group brought out to Jannie when they visited.
Jannie, a huge man who, remarkably for his size, was a winger, while CJ’s mum Amanda is a former 400m champion athlete, with rugby going back several generations in both families.
Amanda said was difficult to see CJ go, not least, like all mums, she was the one who drove him and Janneman to training, matches and other events.
“He did good for himself and we are proud of him. It was very difficult for me to see him go. I was 24-7 alongside his brother at rugby, school and everything else. When they were playing for the schools I was at each game. I got in my car drove to Cape Town or wherever. And suddenly when Janneman finished and he went off, it was so difficult.
“But we are delighted for him. We keep in touch and it doesn’t matter how late or when it is. Early in the morning of game I send him a WhatsApp and then later on we talk. If it’s not too late after the game we talk. We support them in everything that they do.”
They get all the Munster and Ireland matches on television, friends and neighbours come in and the huge braai (BBQ) is lit with timber from the farm and then all sorts of meats, a lot of it hunted, are cooked.
There are ample seats and armchairs around the big television in a room with a giraffe hide on the floor and an elephant’s foot as a small table.
“We sit down here to watch the matches, I watch all of them,” added Jannie. “We have friends over, have a braai and drink and enjoy the matches.
“I came home from church on Sunday after the Toulon match and watched it again.”
CJ and Jean Marie’s home in Castleconell in Limerick has become an extension of their own home — food parcels go back and forth on a regular basis! — and Jannie is just thrilled with the way things have worked out after the Bulls.
“He told me Limerick is his home place and I’m delighted for him and Jean Marie, they are good for each other, they are good friends and they support each other.
“I hope God will save him and that he can play in the World Cup and then in three years he will come here with the Lions to South Africa.
“He will be a son of 30 or 31 by then and that would be good for me.
“I’d be happy with that if God allows it.”