Johnny Sexton admits to being stunned by CJ Stander’s decision to retire and hopes Ireland can provide a fitting send-off with victory over England.
South Africa-born back row Stander, who turns 31 early next month, announced on Tuesday morning that he will call time on his career at the end of the season due to family reasons.
He is set to pull on the Irish jersey for the 51st and final time when Eddie Jones’ side visit Dublin for Saturday’s Six Nations finale but could yet be involved in this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour against the country of his birth.
Ireland captain Sexton, who is almost five years older than Stander, was informed of the startling news on Monday and expects his team-mate to be a major loss.
“(I was) shocked – didn’t see it coming,” Sexton admitted. “They called into a meeting yesterday morning, him, Faz (head coach Andy Farrell); it was the last thing I thought I was getting called in for.
“Literally, if you gave me a thousand things to guess, it wouldn’t have even registered on it.
“He’s done things for the right reasons – his wife and daughter are back in South Africa at the moment, they’ve been there for a few months and they went back for the last lockdown as well, so it takes its toll.
“He’s just taking the decision on family reasons and we respect him for that but he’s a big loss to Munster and Irish rugby, he’s been huge for both teams over the last five, six years.
“Very shocked but we wish him well and we hope that his last game in green will be one to remember.”
Munster man Stander has been virtually ever-present for Ireland since his debut in 2016, having qualified under residency rules the previous year.
He was part of the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand and represented Ireland at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, as well as winning a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018.
“I hereby publicly announce my retirement from all forms of rugby,” he said in a lengthy statement shared on Instagram.
“I asked myself whether I was still enjoying this enough to earn the continued support of Munster and Ireland, and to justify the sacrifices my family was making.
“From a performance perspective, the answer was yes. But I always had the intent to retire while I was still playing some of my best rugby. I also knew I wanted my daughter Everli to grow up around her family in South Africa.”
Stander reached 150 outings for Munster at the end of January after joining from South African club Bulls in 2012 and was named his province’s player of the year on three occasions.
Sexton believes Stander – who won his 50th Test cap for Ireland during Sunday’s 27-24 win over Scotland at Murrayfield – is admired by colleagues and opponents alike.
“He’s a great person first and foremost; you can’t be a good team-mate without being a good lad – very popular in the group,” Leinster fly-half Sexton said of Stander’s qualities.
“And then just his work ethic. I can’t ever remember him missing a game – maybe through suspension after his red card against South Africa – but in terms of being injured, I can’t remember. Just his relentless attitude, his preparation, how tough he was.
“I’ve played against him numerous times, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few carries and he’s got the utmost respect of anyone that’s played with or against him. Ultimately when you finish up, that’s what you want.
“As a player you want to win things but the older you get, the more you realise you just want your own team-mates first and foremost to respect you and then for the opposition to think, ‘he’s a good player’ and I am pretty sure he has achieved that.”
Munster flanker Peter O’Mahony, who returns from a three-match suspension this weekend, has backed his club-mate to enjoy a summer swansong with Warren Gatland’s Lions.
“I’m not a selector – I’m not going to sit here and select him for the Lions – but he’s playing incredible rugby. He’ll put his best foot forward, as he always does,” O’Mahony said of Stander.
“He shows up every week and plays with his heart on his sleeve. He plays hard, plays fair and he will put his hand right up in the air for that selection, certainly.”