The relief around Munster was palpable yesterday as the IRFU confirmed CJ Stander had followed Peter O’Mahony in signing a new three-year contract to keep him at the province until at least the summer of 2021, writes
Yet head coach Johann van Graan has warned that the duo’s decisions, and that of fellow Ireland and Lions forward Tadhg Furlong to stay put at Leinster, will not dissuade big-spending French club owners from making audacious offers to the country’s top players.
Where Irish Rugby can succeed in their battles to resist the Top 14 predators, van Graan believes, is by offering the right environment to train and play which reduces the attraction of the additional riches on offer overseas.
Irish players are not exactly slumming it by staying true to their provinces and by offering the right conditions to succeed, the Munster boss says it will be easier to retain Ireland’s top stars.
Asked yesterday whether French clubs were less likely to court Irish players following the past week’s contract announcements, van Graan replied: “No, I don’t think so.
“Money is part and parcel of the game. What I do know is life is not always about money. Money is important but people need to be happy. People need to believe in something. People need to believe in a dream. Players and coaches need to be a part of a team because a team makes you feel good.
“The feeling we had in the changing room after that Leicester game (last Sunday) you can’t describe. After putting everything in during the week and getting a result against top-quality opposition, that’s the beauty of the game. And then coming in and enjoying yourself every day, that’s important.
“That’s why I am a big believer in environment first, a place where people can be themselves, live out their dreams, and come to work and smile. Where your work is where you spend so much time of every single day. We are going to hope to keep improving the environment in Munster. People are in a very good spot in all four provinces and the Irish team are a very happy team.
“It’s about improving and setting standards where players and coaches can improve. Hopefully we can offer that more than just money.”
Both Munster and the player himself refuted reports that Stander, 27, had alternative offers to consider before signing his three-year IRFU contract, yet to suggest his representatives had not entertained rival bids is disingenuous, to say the least.
Regardless, the back-rower overcame a shaky start at Munster after joining from the Bulls in his native South Africa in the autumn of 2012 to qualify for Ireland and make his Test debut in 2016 before earning selection for the British & Irish Lions this summer on the tour to New Zealand, and he was entitled to be satisfied with his new deal.
“Following a lot of speculation and unfounded articles in the media, I am delighted to announce that I have signed a new three-year contract with the IRFU through to 2021,” Stander said in a statement issued through the IRFU.
“My intention was always to stay with Munster and Ireland throughout this process having settled well in Limerick with my wife and within the Munster family.
“The coaching set-up, ethos, and work ethic within both camps is tremendous and I’m very excited at the prospect of playing my part in achieving great things through hard work and determination with both squads.
“My wife and I took a leap of faith and have made a lot of sacrifices to be here but it has all been worthwhile especially given how much of a privilege it is to wear the Munster and Ireland jerseys when given that responsibility.
“The Munster and Ireland fans have been fantastic to us since we arrived and my continued focus will be to do my best for them and both teams when called upon.”— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) December 21, 2017
CJ signs three-year IRFU contract to remain at Munster until June 2021 | https://t.co/iFPArCJlUw pic.twitter.com/tykrnRfujf
“Ireland is a special country in which to live and play rugby and I’m fully aware of that.
“The Munster and Ireland fans have been fantastic to us since we arrived and my continued focus will be to do my best for them and both teams when called upon.”
Munster Rugby chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald also had reason to be satisfied with a good week’s work. “Coming off the back of Peter’s news last week we are again delighted to retain the services of a key member of our squad with CJ signing up to the province and Irish Rugby for the next three years,” said Fitzgerald.
That said, van Graan offered something of a reality check as he tries to put a Munster squad in place for next season, his chief priority being to find a replacement for departing full-back Simon Zebo.
The Munster head coach said there was no let-up in that regard.
“It’s about doing it now, every single day we are working towards it and putting plans in place. It’s about doing our research about players all over the world but specifically our own players.
“The strengths and weaknesses of our own players, of our own squad. Trying to look into the future of where the game is going.
“What is it going to be like next year, what is it going to be like in two years’ time. What players do we have on contract for the next two or three years? What type of game do we want to play, in terms of fitness standards? It’s an ongoing process, obviously full-back is a massive blow in terms of losing Zeebs. Such a fantastic guy to have around the squad and a world-class player.
“Making sure we are keeping all of the guys that we want to keep within Munster. And then we will look around if we need to fill in other positions. If you look at the squad, loose forwards are very well stocked. I am loving the way our front five are shaping up.
“Nine and 10 is always an important position. We have got a few centres out at this stage, Jaco Taute, Dan Goggin, Chris Farrell, hopefully we get them back. Our back three and wings are very important to us in the way that we play. Hopefully, in a few months, we will see our squad taking shape.”