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Tapping into talent: Ireland gave CJ Stander the opport...

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Opinionista

Tapping into talent: Ireland gave CJ Stander the opportunity to realise his potential

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By Craig Ray
22 Mar 2021 1

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

Ireland rugby player CJ Stander shocked his teammates – and much of the rugby world – by announcing his retirement from the game this week. He will finish the domestic season with his club Munster and play his 51st and final international for Ireland against England this week. If he is selected for the British & Irish Lions to face the Springboks in July, that will be his swan song.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

If you didn’t know, you may have guessed from the name that Stander is South African born and raised. He represented the Junior Springboks but, in 2012, moved to Limerick to further his playing career. After serving a three-year residency, he qualified to play for Ireland. He’s made a great career in Ireland as his Test cap tally suggests. He’s been widely regarded as one of the best loose forwards in the northern hemisphere for the past eight years and he’s built up a cult following in his adopted home.

Stander is one of many rugby players from South Africa and several other nations who have trod the same path. For many reasons, players leave their country of birth to seek career fulfilment in a foreign land.

Duhan van der Merwe and WP Nel are just two South Africans in the current Scotland set-up. Richardt Strauss (cousin to former Bok captain Adriaan), Quinn Roux and Robbie Diack are three other South Africans who have represented Ireland.

Paul Willemse and Bernard le Roux are just two South Africans in the current French squad and England have also had their fair share of “Saffers”, such as Brad Barritt, playing for them over the years.

Stander chose to leave Pretoria when it became clear that his path to the Bulls starting XV was blocked, especially as the coaching staff at the time preferred the talented Arno Botha and felt Stander was too small for a flank. Basically, it came down to a choice between Botha and Stander – and the Bulls favoured Botha, who is 18 months younger than Stander.

Stander had a choice of staying and fighting for a place, or seeking out a new opportunity. Now, you can argue all you like about the merits of Stander’s decision, but with the benefit of hindsight, no one can say it was a poor one. He has been nothing short of sensational for his club and his adopted country.

Botha has played two Tests for the Boks and has had a nomadic career that has taken him to London Irish and ironically Munster, before returning to the Bulls.

This isn’t a criticism of Botha, but he has gone about his business in a relatively low-key manner while Stander has been a source of division and discussion, precisely because he has been so successful. He had to put up with the typical “traitor” jibes in South Africa, especially when he played in some famous Irish victories over the Boks. Stander also had to suffer criticism in Ireland that he was a “mercenary” who took a place from an Irish-born player.

Neither fair nor accurate

Stander is a professional rugby player and, much like in any other field, he made a decision based on what was best for his future.

He didn’t move to Ireland initially expecting to play for their national team. Munster offered a great rugby opportunity and life experience and, for a 22-year-old with few options at the Bulls, it was an adventure.

Stander arrived in Limerick with a few kit bags and a limited command of the English language, and went on to become one of Ireland’s greats. He made a mockery of the “mercenary” jibes because few players gave more to the cause than Stander.

Former Samoa international Daniel Leo, who is a vocal proponent of Pacific Island players’ rights, tweeted that Stander’s decision to retire and return to South Africa “makes a mockery of the game”. He has since deleted the badly considered remark, because there is no argument that Stander never gave less than 100%.

Former Ireland skipper Rory Best laughed off those comments in a column he penned for the BBC. Best wrote: “People are divided on the residency rule. What I can say unequivocally is that if every overseas player had CJ Stander’s attitude to being an Irish rugby player and to representing the Irish jersey, it would only be a good thing. I’m sure it wasn’t the jersey he grew up wanting to represent, but that buy-in and emotion have made CJ a shining example of why the residency rule can be a huge positive.”

Best’s comments raise an important question: is birth and upbringing enough of a reason to stick to one country?

Talented, professional sportspeople want to play at the highest level. They spend their childhoods preparing for careers in elite sport and, through the vagaries of form, injuries, luck and selection, they either make it or they don’t. Just because a person was born in one country and may have even harboured ambitions of representing that country, is it an insult that they fulfil their talent and ambition under another badge and flag?

Every individual has a different story and a different path. Stander, no doubt, had doubts about his decision during training sessions in the biting cold in his early months in Limerick. He had no one but himself to lean on, but he persevered and became the best version of himself in a place that offered him opportunity.

All talent wants is an opportunity to allow it to thrive. If those two aspects intersect, then it is up to the individual to make the most of it. By any measure, Stander did that and the net result was a player who gave joy to Munster, Ireland and indeed rugby fans globally.

As sports lovers, that’s got to be the most important point – that we were able to witness a talent fulfilled, regardless of the badge on his breast. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • South Africa benefitted from Tendai Mtawarira who was born Zimbabwean. Similarly David Pocock who represented Australian, also Clyde Rathbone from SA representing Australia, George Gregan of Zambian descent repping Australia.

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