Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, CJ STANDER talks about the privilege of being named as a British and Irish Lions player, Rassie Erasmus’ impact at Munster and how he has taken his game to greater heights.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to be a 2017 British and Irish Lions player?
CJ Stander: I feel extremely honoured and proud to be part of the British and Irish Lions touring squad to New Zealand. On the day of the squad announcement there was plenty of excitement and anticipation. I was training with my Munster team-mates at the time of the live squad announcement and only found out after training that I had made the cut. My selection means that I became only the fourth South African-born player to be included in a British and Irish Lions touring squad in the professional era. (Mike Catt, Matt Stevens and Brad Barritt are the three South African-born players who have preceded Stander in the modern era). To get selected for the British and Irish Lions is a massive honour and it’s a great privilege to be part of something that is bigger than yourself. We met up as a team collective for the first time earlier this month in London for what is known as ‘Messy Monday’. We received all of our playing kit and formal gear for the upcoming tour and there was a real sense of excitement among the playing group. I will play for Munster in the PRO12 final this weekend and will then fly to London to attend the British and Irish Lions farewell dinner. It’s a quick turnaround, as our first midweek match against the New Zealand Barbarians will be played on June 3 in Whangarei.
Sport24 asked: What will it take to win a first series in New Zealand since 1971?
CJ Stander: It’s going to be a tough tour against the best team in world rugby. However, if we can stay injury-free and recover well between matches, I believe that we can win a series against New Zealand for the first time in 46 years. Recovery will prove crucial because we play a large number of matches over a short period of time. (Sir Graham Henry has described the Lions’ 10-match itinerary as “suicidal” with the visitors playing all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises as well as the Maori All Blacks, which is seen as an unofficial fourth Test). I believe we are heading down to New Zealand with the best of the best selected from the four home nations, and playing against the top-ranked team is going to be an awesome experience. We are going to have to be on top of our game for the full 80 minutes each time we take to the pitch against the All Blacks and the New Zealand teams, because if you make a mistake against them they will punish you. However, I feel as though this is the strongest British and Irish Lions squad selected for a long time, and if we can get all of the different characters, personalities and playing styles to come together, I foresee us being a force to be reckoned with. We have a great captain in the form of Sam Warburton and there are other strong leaders within our playing group, which I feel is going to make a big difference. In addition, there is a real drive and determination within our group and we are aware that just going to New Zealand and being part of the British and Irish Lions squad is not good enough. Each player will have to head to New Zealand with the attitude to want to start every game and to excel in the famous red jersey.
Sport24 asked: You left South Africa in 2012. How have you adapted to life in Limerick?
CJ Stander: At the age of 22, I was fortunate in the sense that I didn’t have anything in my life that was holding me back and I made the decision to leave with my then fiancé and now wife Jean-Marie. (She is the sister of former Olympic swimming champion Ryk Neethling). I felt as though I needed a fresh challenge after spending four years with the Blue Bulls and knew I needed to move on when the Munster offer came up. While it was a tough decision to leave South Africa, it was an exciting opportunity to head to Europe. My roots are in South Africa and I am proud to be a South African. However, on the flipside, Irish rugby and the people of Ireland have pulled me in and have made me feel part of their culture and community. Ireland afforded me the opportunity to play international rugby and I want to continue to give back and show the tremendous appreciation that I have for them. They made it an easy transition for us from day one even though I only came over with a few Rands and could hardly speak English at the time. Life in Limerick has been good and the people have welcomed us with open arms. I’m always going to be South African, but I’m going to try to be the best Irishman I can be. I feel proud to play for Munster and Ireland, and the heritage at club and national level is unbelievable here. I left South Africa as a boy and have become a man in Ireland.
Sport24 asked: How has your game developed during your six-year stay in Ireland?
CJ Stander: During my time in Ireland, I have polished and refined my skillset and have made sure to smooth the rough edges within my game. I have turned myself into a true professional and ensure that the way that I train is the way I go out on to the pitch on match-day. Sometimes players set big expectations for themselves and think that they are going to reach their goals without training hard and putting in the work. I have learned that your training has to be world-class all the time, because if it isn’t you will fall down. You need to work for the team and the jersey and you cannot just rely on pitching up, making a good carry and scoring a try. You can’t just have a good 20 minutes - you need to be constantly on the ball, at the breakdown and at the tackle area. I learned there is no substitute for work ethic when I was a youngster on our farm in South Africa and I’ve carried that with me ever since. I have seen that hard work pays off and I will keep on working hard for the teams I represent.
Sport24 asked: What impact has Rassie Erasmus had at Munster since taking over?
CJ Stander: Rassie has played a massive role at the club since his appointment on a three-year contract in 2016. He came over at a difficult time when we had lost a few matches and were languishing in sixth place in the PRO12. When Rassie came over, with defence coach Jacques Nienaber, he took plenty of pressure off our head coach at the time, Anthony Foley. Rassie has a wealth of knowledge and is one of the best coaches in the world. He brought plenty of experience with him as well as the technical side of the game which the team probably didn’t have at the time. Rassie has transformed this club into a special place and really helped us out during an extremely difficult and tragic time when ‘Axel’ (Foley), a father figure to me, passed away last year ahead of our match against Racing Metro. Rassie has managed to turn the ship around at Munster with real skill and has brought everyone associated to the club with him on this exciting journey. Rassie is a great man and he is now regarded as an icon here because he’s someone that has done well for the city of Limerick.
Sport24 asked: What is your proudest rugby moment and what are your future aims?
CJ Stander: Defeating New Zealand in Chicago last year stands out as my best rugby moment so far. It was the first time we had beaten the All Blacks in 111 years, and stopping them from setting a new world record in terms of consecutive Test victories was surreal. It was a special day at Soldier Field and I still get goosebumps when I talk about it. We were inspired by the Chicago Cubs, who had just won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. We put in a lot of work ahead of the Test and it was one of those days were everything came together perfectly on the pitch. We beat the best team in the world and the enjoyment level for us as players and Ireland supporters was immense. In terms of future dreams, lifting the Rugby World Cup trophy is something I would love to do with Ireland. I would also like to win any senior competition with Munster. We have worked hard this season and are almost there. We just need that little bit extra to win the PRO12 or Champions Cup. (Munster will have the opportunity to get their hands on silverware when they tackle Scarlets in the PRO12 final on Saturday). Meanwhile, claiming the series against the All Blacks would mean the world to me and my British and Irish Lions team-mates, and you will probably witness grown men crying if we win.
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