CJ Stander: Grand Slam winner and Ireland legend

CJ Stander on the phone with his family after making his last appearance for Ireland 20/3/2021
Half an hour after the final whistle, CJ Stander still couldn’t bring himself to leave.

Half an hour after the final whistle, CJ Stander still couldn’t bring himself to leave.

He stood there, rooted to the spot on the Aviva Stadium’s pristine pitch, taking it all in for one last time as the curtain fell on his Guinness Six Nations career – iPhone in hand and his eyes filled with tears.

In five short years, Stander racked up 51 Ireland caps, winning 65 per cent of them, scored 12 tries and won a Grand Slam. Not bad for a farmer’s son from South Africa.

Indeed, when Stander first arrived in Cork, the man with Afrikaans as his mother tongue could hardly speak a word of English. Ironically, he could hardly utter a word of anything at the full-time whistle on Saturday, as the tears flowed, his voice disappeared and five years of memories flashed through his mind.

There was that heroic win against New Zealand in Chicago, a Championship hat-trick against Italy and the Grand Slam triumph at Twickenham. There may well be a British & Irish Lions Tour to come in July, poetically in South Africa, but it will be in Irish green that Stander will always be at remembered.

The highlights reel may be short, as it often is for back-row forwards who specialise in grunt rather than flair, but his teammates saw him off in style, with Tina Turner’s Simply the Best blasting through the speakers in the changing room.

He leaves the Emerald Isle this summer as a cherished son of Munster and a Guinness Six Nations legend.


Stander was, incredibly, deemed too small to play at the highest level in his native South Africa but he quickly found a home at Munster in 2012.

After four years, he qualified to play Test rugby for Ireland on residency grounds and was instantly called up for the 2016 Championship as then head coach Joe Schmidt looked to revolutionise a side that had underwhelmed at the previous autumn’s World Cup.

Stander was thrust straight into the starting XV for the home game with Wales in Round 1 and – in a sign of things to come – was named Player of the Match in the 16-16 draw.

Three games later, he scored his first Test try against his favourite opponents. Six of Stander’s 12 international scores came against Italy and his first set the tone, a low burrowing finish putting Ireland on course for a handsome win.

The Men in Green only won two games in the 2016 Championship but they quickly re-discovered the swagger of their 2014 and 2015 title triumphs, sparked by that game in Chicago.

A stunning 40-29 win against the reigning world champions and No.1-ranked team in the world New Zealand kick-started a brilliant period for Irish rugby, and Stander was quickly becoming a fan favourite as he scored the second of five tries.


Away defeats to Scotland and Wales derailed Ireland’s 2017 Championship campaign but Stander still wrote his name in the history books with a stunning hat-trick against Italy in Round 2.

Two close-range finishes and one excellent line-break that led to a third saw him produce another Player of the Match performance. He finished the campaign as one of the 12 nominees for Player of the Championship.

That summer, Warren Gatland picked Stander for the British & Irish Lions and he made seven appearances in all in New Zealand, scoring one try against the Blues in the second match.

Initially picked primarily as a mid-week player, he forced his way into the Test side and came off the bench in the tense decider that finished in a 15-15 draw and saw the series tied at 1-1. For Ireland and the Lions, Stander played five times against the All Blacks and was only on the losing side twice.


Undoubtedly Stander’s finest moment came in 2018, as Ireland romped just their second Grand Slam of the Six Nations era.

The No.8 played all 80 minutes of the 15-13 win in France – headlined by Johnny Sexton’s winning drop goal with the clock in the red – that set the tone for Championship and featured in every match thereafter, including the Round 5 win at Twickenham.

Ireland had too much for England and Stander was a big part of the reason why, his try in the 24th minute sending them on their way to a 24-15 win.

Ireland’s 2019 defence crumbled at the first hurdle, as England got their own back by muscling their way to victory in Dublin. But Stander was back to his best in 2020 and back as a nominee for the Player of the Championship.


No player made more carries (78) or won more turnovers (7) than the consistent back-rower and he played nigh on every minute, missing only the dying seconds of the win over Wales after picking up a late yellow card.

He set the tone for his Championship with successive Player of the Match awards in the opening fortnight, with a pair of all-action displays against Scotland and Wales.

The pandemic disrupted things midway through the Championship but Stander was the first Irish player back on the scoresheet after their long hiatus, going over for the first of his side’s seven tries in the early stages of a comfortable win over Italy to mark the start of another fine individual display.

Against France in Round 5, Ireland needed to win by a seven-point margin to leapfrog England and claim the Championship but fell short against a free-flowing Les Bleus side, who ran out 35-27 winners.

Stander stood up and was counted despite his side swimming against the tide in the Stade de France, making 14 carries and winning two turnovers to take him to the top of the Championship’s overall list in both categories.


Stander’s decision to retire from rugby caught many off-guard, because he is still clearly at the top of his game.

He played every minute in this Championship once more and scored another try against Italy in the Round 3 win, as Ireland rebounded from a slow start to win their last three fixtures.

But he finished in style, terrorising England’s back row with another titanic performance that resulted in an Ireland win. It’s exactly how he’ll be remembered.