"I could feel that connection at Soldier Field. Axel was there, 100%" - CJ Stander
"I've been trying to get on your show for a while!"
CJ Stander meets House of Rugby Ireland and, for 20 minutes at least, all is right with the world again.
Ever since the show started, getting CJ Stander on for a chat has been high on the list of goals. We've had Tana Umaga, Victor Matfield, Shane Williams, Brian O'Driscoll, Jean De Villiers and Conrad Smith, but Stander proved elusive for far too long.
On this bright, winter's day, the chase ends with Stander sitting down to chat with Eimear Considine about coping with set-backs, his special bond with Anthony Foley and Munster teammate Craig Casey hogging all the man-of-the-match awards.
The Munster, Ireland and Lions star has been announced as the latest ambassador for the Tackle Your Feelings campaign, and its' helpful app, and is encouraging people to rally around their loved ones and support one another during these uncertain times.
An accompanying video to the announcement covers Stander not having much English [he mainly spoke Afrikaans] when he arrived in Limerick from South Africa, and the early bond he former with Munster legend Anthony Foley, who was his coach at the time.
Stander recalls Foley inviting him and the Munster players around to his house for pizza and beers on a couple of occasions, and immediately making him feel welcome.
"What really made us close," he recalls, "was he was coach and I was captaining the side, but we were not doing well, as a squad. He was under pressure and I was under pressure.
"We had a lot of conversations, about how I could be better as a leader and how we both, as people, could be better. He was always a gut I could go to."
"He knew how to get the best out of people," Stander continues. "Sometimes it's not just training, being the hard guy or being a hard person, just pitching up. Sometimes you've got to have that family bond and conversations with each other.
"As soon as you know where the person has come from and what they stand for, then you can actually start working and go from there."
Stander laughs as he fondly recalls Foley sending over 'this massive carrot cake' to a table he was sitting at with his girlfriend (now wife) Jean-Marie and waving as he headed out the door. "He knew it was her birthday," Stander explains.
Foley passed away in Paris at the age of just 42 after succumbing to an acute pulmonary oedema the night before Munster were due to take on Racing 92 in a European Cup game.
Foley was buried five days later, in County Clare, while Stander and his Munster teammates went out, played and beat Glasgow Warriors in an emotional European encounter just 24 hours later. Stander, playing in the No.8 role that Foley excelled in as a player, opted to wear jersey No.24 that day, as a mark of respect to 'Axel'.
Just three weeks after that, Stander was standing at the front of a figure of 8 tribute for Foley at Soldier Field, minutes before battle commenced between Ireland and New Zealand.
"Going to Soldier Field and standing in that 8, it's weird," Stander reflects.
"There was probably just a wind blowing in Chicago that day, but I could just feel that connection. There was something going on around that. You could feel it. He was there. He was there, 100%.
"I don't know what the other guys say, how they felt or what was their motivation, but I knew Axel was pushing me along in that game, for sure."
Stander scored a try for Ireland that day in a 40-29 Irish victory over the All Blacks. From 2012 to 2020, for province and country, and from Thomond Park to Soldier Field and everywhere in between, Stander has done those No.8 jerseys proud.
The full interview with CJ Stander on House of Rugby Ireland will be out later this week as a bonus episode. It's good to talk.
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts. You can catch up on all our episodes from past seasons and interviews with Conrad Smith, Victor Matfield, Simon Zebo, Sean O'Brien, Drew Mitchell, Jean De Villiers, Finn Russell, Mike Brown, Brian O'Driscoll, Tana Umaga and much, much more.