CJ Stander has more reason than most to appreciate his time playing alongside Paul O’Connell, the Ireland back rower credits the now retired legend with saving his career.
Stander, 25, will win his second Test cap for Ireland today when his adopted country face France in Paris in the RBS 6 Nations. His qualification to represent Ireland came through last November after three years of residency but just 12 months in to his new life with Munster, he was considering returning to his native South Africa, questioning whether he would ever make the grade.
O’Connell made a brilliant first impression on the former Springbok Under-20 captain, who left the Blue Bulls aged 22 for Ireland in 2012 but did not find his feet in the Munster back row until well into his second season.
And it was the veteran second row who gave Stander the belief to soldier on at the province and eventually prove his worth at Test level, winning the man of the match award on his debut against Wales last Sunday.
“He saved my career for sure,” Stander said. “After the first year at Munster it was tough but he came to me after every team announcement and just said ‘keep the faith lad, keep the faith’.
“I’d be close to almost crying and he’d come up to me, this mountain of a man, Paul O’Connell. He doesn’t have to talk to me, he’s the captain of Ireland and he can just go on and do his own stuff.
“But that’s the type of man he is. It’s never about him, always about the team. He’d come to me and say ‘listen here, keep the faith’.
“I’d be at the back of the bus in the corner and he’s in the middle and they’re joking and listening to what he has to say. For me, from South Africa, thinking I would play alongside a guy like that, I can’t put that into words.”
Stander echoed the outpouring of affection for O’Connell since he announced he would have to quit the game on Tuesday, four months after suffering the severe hamstring tear in his 108th appearance for Ireland against France at the World Cup.
“He taught me a lot and all the praise he got, that’s exactly the type of man he is,” Stander said.
“When I first met him, straight away he was talking about me and the farm in South Africa, my family; he even remembered my wife’s name. I was like ‘how does he even know that?’
“On the retirement side, it sounds like he’s made peace with it and that’s good. I’m delighted for him and his family. He probably would have wanted to push on with Toulon but he can say he stuck with Munster for 14 years and for me he’s the most humble man I’ve ever met and the biggest rugby legend I’ve ever played with. That will stick for all times with me.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved