These are uncertain times indeed, and since the advent of professionalism 25 years ago there’s never been a worse time for a player to be nearing the end of a contract than at the culmination of this season.
All told, it is estimated that 88 players in the Irish system fall into that category, leading some, such as CJ Stander, to consider the distinct possibility that his time with Munster and Ireland could be coming to an enforced end.
At the very least, like 87 others, his future beyond next June is very much up in the air. “The negotiations with the IRFU haven’t started yet. I think with Covid they need to make sure that they’re in a place where they can give out contracts. So until then, the plan is to stay here and enjoy what I’m doing at the moment,” said Stander.
Now in his ninth season with Munster, for whom he’s played 146 times and scored 41 tries, and fifth season playing for Ireland (43 caps, 11 tries), at 30 Stander’s powers show no signs of diminishing. Last week he became the Munster players’ player of the year for a third time in the last six years, and on Monday he was included on a six-man shortlist for the Six Nations player of the tournament.
He’s also enjoying his rugby again.
I can tell you with the honesty out of my heart that at the moment, contracts are the last thing on my mind
“There was a stage where I didn’t and that is not a good place but I’m enjoying it at the moment again and my family is happy. There’s probably going to be a few discussions and a few decisions here and there but it’s something we’ll take when the right time comes.”
By contrast, in December 2017 he had already signed his existing three-year contract, but whether or not he, Jean-Marie and their one-year-old daughter Everli return to the family farm in George sooner than intended, Stander seems sanguine about what the future holds.
“I think a few years ago I would have signed already by now but no, for me personally, no uncertainty. I know where we are in the world and what’s going on and I can tell you with the honesty out of my heart that at the moment, contracts are the last thing on my mind.
“I literally said this to my wife last night, I just want to go out there and play the game because you never know, it might be the end of rugby at the end of this year and no one will ever get a contract again. It might turn the other way. So I just want to play every game that I can, enjoy it and enjoy being fit, being able to be in the gym and around the boys. For me personally, there’s no uncertainty.”
Whether he’s around to witness it or not, Stander maintained that this Irish team could still achieve “something special” in the aftermath of Saturday’s 35-28 defeat by France, which could even one day be seen as a turning point.
“Yes, I probably put my neck out too much and put myself up to other people for their criticism but that’s fine, I believe with Munster it’s not too far in the near future and the same with Ireland.
If I look at it now it’s not even a big thing, but at that stage I thought it was the end of the world almost
“If you look at the two squads there’s young guys coming through, a bit of change here and there, and we were not far off this year. In the Six Nations we left it out there. We could have been first. We could have been second or third. It was that type of competition. We weren’t far off on Saturday. Too many mistakes, that happens.”
As an ambassador for the Tackle Your Feelings campaign, Stander was promoting the Pro add-on to the TYF App as part of the second phase of the #ImTakingControl campaign.
In the animation advertisement, Stander freely admits to the difficulties he had when first arriving in Munster, much of which emanated from his poor grasp of English.
“If I look at it now it’s not even a big thing, but at that stage I thought it was the end of the world almost.”
No one helped him through those initially difficult days in 2012-13 more than Anthony Foley, who passed away four years ago last month and would have been 43 last Friday. Their relationship strengthened during Foley’s two seasons as head coach, particularly when Stander stood in for Peter O’Mahony as captain in the 2015-16 season.
“It was tough times for both of us going through a season where we didn’t really perform and we were both under pressure. We had a lot of time together in his office and previous to that he helped me work on my game to get a better work-rate and become a better player for the team.
It’s very easy to be alone and sometimes if you don’t have people in your life who can help you or you can go to, you need to reach out as well
“He saw there was something in me and when we sat down in those tough times talking about life and rugby in general, we had a great connection there. He was someone who was a text message or a call away. Small things. You’d get a text out of the blue and it would change your day. You need to be kind and that’s one thing I learned from the big man.”
This is something which Stander believes has particular relevance in society right now.
“In the times we live it’s important people know they’re not alone. It’s very easy to be alone and sometimes if you don’t have people in your life who can help you or you can go to, you need to reach out as well. You need to make sure you have good relationships with your support structure. For me it was always family and friends.”
– For more information on Tackle Your Feelings follow the Instagram account @tyf or visit the website www.tackleyourfeelings.com which will share videos, updates on events and competitions.