Irish by birth, Irish by blood – through the grandparents rule – and now Irish by project or the residency rule. When it was introduced I thought that the approach seemed unfair to the indigenous players, parachuting in players from around the world who after three years residency would qualify to play for Ireland. The All Blacks had been doing it for years and as more countries began adding to their player pools it became a case of following suit or dropping down the rankings.
When I heard Munster were bringing in a backrow project player I was surprised given it is traditionally a position of strength in Munster and indeed Ireland. I wondered if it was just a way of circumventing the restriction on Non Irish Qualified players within the provincial teams. However, along came CJ Stander and his attitude to the project changed mine!
According to the Irish Times here he said: “The thing is I’m always going to be South African, I’m never going to be an Irishman, but I can try my best… to be the best South African Irish person I can be. Playing for Ireland is something I’ve learned about down in Munster and I’ve tried to take in all of the culture and country, tried to learn what Ireland is about, I’ve done a lot from my side and I enjoy it, I enjoy playing for Ireland.”
His first start for Munster coincided with the 2nd edition of this blog from December 2012 in which I recorded his first MOTM award for Munster as he scored two tries that night albeit breaking a bone in his hand in the process. He announced himself on the European stage with another MOTM performance after coming on as a substitute for Peter O’Mahony in the quarter-final against Toulouse in 2014.
But it is not just his on-field performances which have impressed and won him many fans across the province and beyond. His work ethic, humility, respect for the jersey and drive to improve himself are well known. Inspired by players like Paul O’Connell he has taken into his guardianship the Munster legacy as he has become a role model and inspiration to others to work hard to follow their dreams. Keith Earls – proud son of Limerick himself – is reported in the Independent as saying: “You’d swear he was born and raised in Limerick now, he loves the place and he’s really passionate about Munster”
I had the pleasure of speaking to CJ after the Pro12 semi-final in Glasgow and when he saw me a few months later in the check-in queue at Manchester airport after the Sale game he recognised me and said hello like he would a friend – I was nearly looking behind me to see who he was saluting!
During the recent week off from Six Nations action CJ made himself available for photos and autographs in the MRSC bar before the Dragons game as he does his bit to address the issue raised by Foley recently: “Whether it’s the people need to identify with the players or the players need to identify with the people, I’m not sure”, (from a recent article in the Examiner speaking about the drop in attendances.)
After 76 games for Munster, scoring 115 points and in the process winning 7 MOTM awards in the 14/15 season alone plus the senior player of the year award CJ was a natural choice to take the role of Captain in place of the injured Peter O’Mahony. When he won his first Irish cap against Wales on February 6th, 2016 I could not have been more pleased to see him achieve his dream as a result of his hard work. His commitment to the Irish jersey led him to learn the words to “Amhran na bhFiann” – from YouTube and his room-mate Donnacha Ryan – as you can see in the video clip below
Seeing him belt out the anthems brought a wee tear to my eye as it feels like we have been on the journey with him. It could not have gone much better either than to win the Man of the Match award but that is the standard that he has set for himself. His inevitable first try for Ireland came in his fourth start as he showed great power to drive over the line with two Italians desperately trying to haul him down. Great input from the aforementioned Earlsie in the build-up also:
He scored again in the final game of the series against Scotland as did Keith Earls on his 50th cap for Ireland, Conor Murray and Devin Toner. This time it entailed an athletic dive over the top and he was in contention for Man of the Match again but was beaten to it by his backrow partner Jamie Heaslip.
For balance, not everyone is a fan of the residency rule. Peter Jackson and others have called for the qualification bar to be raised to a 5 year residency and in this article Peter lists the players in the recent 6 Nations whose eligibility was due to the residency rule – 40 over the past 2 seasons. It’s a telling statistic about how the international game has changed.
An article in the Irish Times about CJ’s impact in this years Six Nations is also worth reading. Peter O’Mahony will have a fight on his hands to reclaim his Irish jersey when he returns to fitness. Maybe CJ will get a chance to impress at #8 to accommodate them both! I am sure he will bring back to Munster the lessons he learnt at the Irish camp as he continues to strive to improve his game and help Munster get back to winning ways.
UPDATE May 12, 2016:
To cap off the season in which not only did he play 21 games for Munster and 5 for Ireland, winning 4 Man of the Match awards and on 7 tries being joint top try scorer for Munster, he also deservedly won the IRUPA Players of the Year, was voted by the Irish Supporters as the Player of the year and became the first player to win the Munster Rugby player of the year for 2 seasons in a row! His season is not yet over as Ireland prepare for their tour of South Africa in June.
Gerry Thornley wrote this article about CJ when he was honoured at the IRFU awards
The Irish Examiner interviewed him after his Munster award and quote him as saying:
“This is the one that really means a lot to me. The players nominate you and they’re with you on the pitch every week and they can see what everything’s about and then the supporters (vote). Thank you very much, I appreciate it.”
Asked what the Munster team meant to him, the back-rower said: “A lot. I would give my life for them, for the team, for the coaches and the management, especially the team.”
No wonder that so many voted for him as he always “walks the talk”
An interesting perspective from Alan Quinlan from the Indo on Oct 29, 2016: “What Irish rugby wants is a man who cares 100 per cent for the shirt. It doesn’t matter where he is from.”
Updated January 2017: as the Six Nations squad is announced this topic has been aired again in print and radio. Paul Kimmage talks about it as if all a project player has to do is swan up and sit pretty for 3 years and walk into the Irish team. That is so far from the reality that I think he is just saying it to be controversial. A project player has to work hard for his provincial team, putting his body on the line week in and week out and also has to be the best player in that position to be picked for the national team! These talented players help to drive up standards and ensures there is a healthy level of competition.
December 2017: CJ signs a contract through to 2021.
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