Lessons from the Big Man – CJ Stander

Lessons from the Big Man – CJ Stander

November 2020

There was a stage when I wasn’t enjoying my rugby and that wasn’t a good place to be in. Everybody goes through it.

By the time I realised, it was already too late. There had been a few weeks of bad performances and doubts began to creep into my head. I began to resent the game and I always said if that happened I would take my boots and leave.

I’m lucky to have a great support structure around me. At that time I had conversations with my wife and family that I didn’t think I’d be having at 29.

Lockdown helped me to remember how much of a privilege it is to play rugby and be fit. I’m not the big part in this game – the game is the big part – but as long as I can add value to my teammates, the young players and the supporters, I’m happy.  

A lot of it is about being kind. Axel taught me that. We became very close when Pete was out injured and I became captain at Munster. They were tough times for both of us because we weren’t performing. Axel and I both felt the pressure.

Back then I spent a lot of time in his office talking about rugby and about life in general. We had a great connection and I think he saw something in me.

He’d often send me a message out of the blue. Sometimes I didn’t know I needed it, but it could change my day completely.

It was hard walking by his empty office in those first few weeks. Even now I still think he’s going to walk into the room. I often think about him.

He was a class act and a class man. He left a void that will never be filled. His knowledge and love for the game was unmatched, but his main concern was always for his players and their families. 

We need to be kind to each other, that was the greatest lesson I learned from the big man.

I’m a social person so I miss the social aspect of rugby at the moment. I miss the dinners with the opposition after a game or having a few drinks here and there.

In Irish camp we were assigned friends to sit with at dinner. If we wanted to talk to someone else, we had to shout across the room! It makes it harder for me because they couldn’t understand me even before I had to wear a mask!

Walking down to the pitch for training is a great time to get a few chats in. The social part is very important to keep your head in check and to check-in on other guys too.

It’s very easy for someone to feel alone at the moment. Whether you’re at home or in camp, it’s very easy to shut the world out and binge on Netflix. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors.

It’s very important to reach out and build good relationships with your support structure. For me that’s my wife and family. I always make sure those connections are strong. If something is on my mind I will always pick up the phone to them no matter where I am in the world.

You need to play your part too. Someone might just need a smile, hug or a ‘good morning’ to put them on a different route for the day. Anyone can be vulnerable at some stage in their life and they need to be able to talk about it.

One thing I’ve always noticed is how the Irish community are very good at asking how you are. They look after each other.

Leaving my family behind in South Africa was a big decision for me. I thought it was the end of the world. It’s nice to look back now at how I dealt with it and how everyone supported me through it.

Even if they didn’t like me or the idea that a South African was playing for Ireland, they put things to one side to ensure I was ok or acknowledge that I’d had a good game. They still do.

Irish people worry more about the person than the player. I guess they know that if you’re in good form as an individual, you will do better at the day job! 

It’s not easy for anyone to be vulnerable in the workplace. Mine happens to be male dominated, macho and full of craic. It’s not often we talk about our feelings but in a squad of 40 personalities, people tick in 40 different ways and not everybody is going to be on top of things.

I’m glad all the protocols are there so that we can play at all. It’s important for us as players but it’s even more important for the nation, to have something to look forward to at the weekends, to have something to talk about.

Because people need to talk to each other. The world is a difficult place at the moment and plenty of us don’t feel good. Even if you feel great, it’s always worth checking in. You won’t feel on top form all the time.

Be kind to yourself and other people. That’s what the big man taught me.



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