There may be 10,000 kilometres between them these days but Limerick will always be just a heartbeat away for Munster hero CJ Stander.
Almost a year on from Stander’s shock retirement from professional rugby at the age of 31, the former Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions back-rower has spoken emotionally about how the city that adopted him as one of their own when he left his native South Africa in October 2012 made a lasting impression on him, his family and gave him the values he hopes to instil in his young daughter.
Stander is forging a new life with wife Jean-Marie and two-year-old Everli in Paarl, about an hour’s drive east of Cape Town and 400 kilometres west of his family’s farm in George, where he has embarked on a management career in the construction industry.
This time last year he had played all but the last of his 156 games for Munster having made his 51st and final appearance for Ireland against England the previous March but while the boots have since been stowed away, the memories linger.
“If I look back at one place that has a really special place in me and my family's heart, it's Limerick,” Stander said yesterday during a media conference call organised by the United Rugby Championship.
“Limerick is a place where you are your own person and people look after each other. The way the people of Limerick looked after me and my family, I'm going to get emotional about it because it was special.
“They looked after me and my family when things were tough and when things were great as well. They made sure I stayed humble. I could walk in the Milk Market and a guy could say that one week I'm the best and the next week he will tell me straight 'Kid, you need to wake up and pull up your socks'.
“That's what I liked about the place. It will always be a special place to me and I can't wait to go back.
Stander added: “I learned a lot of values in Limerick and just in general in Ireland. It's a place where, if you make sure you work hard and buy into the culture, then you play your part, not just in rugby.
“Look, rugby was part of my life but that's over now. But I realised, you need to be your own person, you need to make sure you leave a mark and make sure that your mark doesn't overshadow someone else's.
“That's what I learned in Limerick. It's a value that I will take with me and hopefully pass that on to my daughter one day.”
Stander’s decision to retire had been announced during the final week of the 2021 Six Nations as he was preparing to face England. It would be a victory that marked a sharp upturn in performance levels for Andy Farrell’s Ireland and despite leaving on the cusp of a new era, the 2018 Grand Slam winner is eagerly anticipating what the future holds for the national team.
“The exciting thing for me is they are not at their peak yet. I think in previous years, us as a squad, we probably peaked at the wrong stages, in a good way, look we won Grand Slams and that is a good thing.
“But if you look at it and want to go to a World Cup, I think they are going to peak at the perfect time.
“I'm very excited about the World Cup for Ireland, I think they are peaking at the right time. Good leaders are still there, guys coming up in the ranks, it's exciting.
“Josh van der Flier, unbelievable. He is playing so well. A guy like Caelan Doris, you can't stop the guy. Guys I worked with everyday are coming through. The older guys like Johnny (Sexton) and Pete (O'Mahony) are playing unbelievable rugby at their age. They are pushing that standard every day.
“Key players are playing well. I think about a guy like Andrew Conway, James Lowe, Tadhg Furlong, they are playing very, very well and that excites me.”
Stander may well be back on South African soil but with the Springboks set to face the Irish at next year’s World Cup in France, having been drawn in the same pool, there is no question in his mind that he will be wearing an Ireland jersey when the sides clash at Stade de France next September.
“100 per cent.”
“I think Damian as been a force from day one since he moved into the squad and he’s just getting better and better and getting more ball. The thing about Damian is what you see is what you get, when he arrived at the squad, he was probably the most calm guy, he was helping, he took a while for the squad to get used to him, he was a great signing. He’s a World Cup winner and a World Cup winner for a reason, he’s an exceptional player.
“Hodnett was a guy that always worked hard when I was there and he’s a guy that’s unbelievable over the ball and carries hard, he’s a hard worker, very excited for him.”
“I couldn’t believe the stuff at his age he was doing against Toulouse. He’s playing very well, again he works hard and he excites me a lot. He’s an all-around good player, a great player. His defence is good, his attack is good and he gets around the park well.”
“The guy stepped into my jersey, took over that and nobody remembers me now. What a guy, what a player and I think he’s going to have many caps, all three of them and not just for Munster. I truly believe they will go on for Ireland as well. The back row in Ireland is a very tough place to play in. There’s always big competition but those three guys, what they’re doing at their age now and the confidence they have, and the enjoyment. I can see the enjoyment in their faces when I’m watching them I don’t know how they feel in the changing room, it will probably be different than when I was there but I’m really excited for them and their future.”
"They have a squad of 50 or 60 guys and anyone of them can stand up and play their game and make sure that they're the best in their jersey. The big thing for them is they tasted success early on, a few years ago, and I think they just grew on that success all the time. They remembered how they got there and just grew from that. They made sure they got a good coaching staff and made sure all the players are on the same page. And playing against them, they're so clinical.
"I remember playing them once in Thomond Park and we said to ourselves, 'we need to give away just two or three penalties in the whole game' and we beat them. I remember Fineen Wycherley grabbed Johnny Sexton somewhere and there was a bit of a scuffle and we just got a bit of a mental edge over them in that game. But that doesn't happen, it was a once off that we could get under their skin a little bit. I just think that clinically, they are unbelievable. They are a well organised team and know exactly where they want to go.”