CJ Stander said that it will be a dream come true this evening when he leads Munster out on the pitch where he played as a child in South Africa.
Stander was only 12 when he last played at Outeniqua Park in George and never envisaged he would play on his local pitch when he left the Bulls and decided to head to Ireland to further his career.
“No, not a chance. When I left I never thought I was going to play in South Africa. I never thought in my life I was going to play in George. That dream was out the door when I left here as a kid.
“It’s an unreal opportunity. Somewhere someone is pulling the right strings for me and I can just be thankful for this opportunity,” said Stander, as he looked around the quaint stadium yesterday afternoon during Munster’s captain’s run.
The stadium in the middle of the town is expected to be full as the people of George come out not only to support their local side but to welcome home one of their own.
This will be the first time that the Southern Kings have played a home match away from Port Elizabeth since entering the PRO14, and the response from locals has been great.
By lunchtime yesterday over 6,000 tickets were sold for a ground which can hold just 7,000. Included among the crowd this evening will be around 150 who have travelled from Ireland.
But that won’t be the extent of the Munster support as over 100 workers from the Stander family farm will be cheering on the Reds as they bid to secure a home quarter-final spot against a Southern Kings side who have only managed one win so far.
Admission prices start at just over €3 for the terraces behind the goals, rising to almost €10 for the most expensive seats in the grandstand. The Kings head coach Deon Davids is from George and with three local lads in the matchday squad, there is added interest.
Stander has been handed the captaincy for the occasion by Johann van Graan, who has made 10 changes to the side which pipped Toulon in the Champions Cup last weekend. Stander, who turned 28 on Thursday, said he was thrilled when van Graan asked him on Wednesday in Cape Town to lead the team for Munster’s first ever match in South Africa.
“When I was told I was captain it was a huge honour, to come back to a stadium where I played as a kid. It was good to give the dad a call and mom because I wasn’t sure if I was going to play.
“And it is good to have them here, some of the people on the farm that supported me as a kid are coming along as well. I am looking forward to it.
“It’s a great week so far, trained well, everyone got a bit of sun in. It’s good for team spirit just to be away together and to have a game like this is a nice one.”
The weather has been kind to Munster and the intense heat of Cape Town from earlier in the week has been replaced by cool, cloudy days in George, just a few kilometres inland from the Indian Ocean.
Stander said they can’t take anything for granted against the Kings and he wants his men fired-up for a big challenge.
“They beat Dragons and they are a tough team in South Africa. They play a bit of a loose game. If you give them the ball to attack, they have a lot of speed around the edges, it is going to be a long day then. We need to play the way we want to play. And make sure we look after the ball,” he added.
Van Graan has made six changes up front where loosehead prop James Cronin, hooker Niall Scannell and tighthead John Ryan start in the front row.
Lock Gerbrandt Grobler also returns to his native South Africa and starts for just the second time for the province, with compatriot Jean Kleyn and Stander the only two forwards retained from the Toulon game.
Dave O’Callaghan begins at blindside flanker with Conor Oliver on the openside flank.
Van Graan has made four further alterations in the backline with James Hart starting at scrum-half, Dan Goggin comes in at centre, while Calvin Nash is on the right wing and JJ Hanrahan at full-back.
Stephen Fitzgerald provides the only cover for the outside backs among the replacements— scrum-half Jack Stafford is the only other back on the bench.
M Banda; M Makase, J Nel, B Klaasen, Y Penxe; M du Toit, G Masimla; S Ferreira, S Coetzee, P Scholtz; S Greeff, B De Wee; A Ntsila, M Burger, R Lerm.
A Van Rooyen, J Forwood, L Pupuma, L Mtyanda, L Badiyana, R van Rooyen, N Dukisa, L Vulindlu.
JJ Hanrahan; C Nash, D Goggin, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, J Hart; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, G Grobler; D O’Callaghan, C Oliver, CJ Stander.
R Marshall, D Kilcoyne, B Scott, B Holland, J O’Donoghue, J Stafford, S Fitzgerald, R Copeland.