Ireland’s captain, Johnny Sexton, said he was as shocked as anyone by the decision of his teammate CJ Stander to retire from rugby at the end of this season. Stander, 31, will pull on the green jersey for the final time against England in Dublin this Saturday having resisted efforts by both Munster and the Irish Rugby Football Union to change his mind.
Stander won his 50th cap against Scotland on Sunday and remains a potential British & Irish Lions contender this summer but is keen to walk away on his own terms and also wants his daughter to grow up in his native South Africa. “All professional sports people are told ‘You will know when the time is right to hang up your boots’,” said Stander.
“For me that time has come. I came to the realisation that my commitment to rugby has started to take an unfair toll on my family … who have made considerable sacrifices for more than 25 years to allow me to live my dream.”
Sexton learned about Stander’s decision only on Monday when he was called to a meeting by the Ireland coach, Andy Farrell. “If you’d given me 1,000 guesses about what the meeting was about it wouldn’t even have registered on the list,” said Sexton, still soldiering on himself at the age of 35.
“It was the last thing I thought I was getting called in for. But he’s doing things for the right reasons. His wife and daughter have gone back to South Africa during lockdown and it takes its toll. He’s taken the decision for family reasons and we respect him for that but he’s a big loss to Munster and Irish rugby.”
Sexton has also acknowledged much is riding on Saturday’s Ireland v England game from a Lions selection perspective. “If Wales go and win a grand slam, the majority of those guys [will get] on the tour and whoever finishes second will get the most next. Historically these games against the home nations, the guys you’re competing against, will play a big part in the decision making process.”
England’s Henry Slade, another strong Lions contender, is a doubt for the Ireland game after picking up a leg injury, with Harlequins’ Joe Marchant joining the squad as cover. Ollie Lawrence and Paolo Odogwu are other potential alternatives but, whoever plays, England believe they have now found the right balance in terms of expressing themselves in attack. “The Scotland game was a line in the sand for us,” said the winger Jonny May. “It shone a light on the fact that our attack wasn’t good enough.
“The attitude’s changed in terms of making it a bit simpler. We were probably overthinking it. It’s like Goldilocks and the porridge. You don’t want too much information because that will fry your brains. You want just the right amount.”
Wales’s assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys, meanwhile, says his side will have to deliver their best performance of the season to clinch a grand slam in Paris this weekend. “There have been real positives to our game but is what we have done so far good enough to beat France? Probably not, so we will have to do better,” said Humphreys. “They still have a lot to play for and they will be hell bent on beating us.”