CJ Stander wrote the name "Marie" on his arm as preparation for his British & Irish Lions test debut off the bench, after what he described as "one of the toughest weeks of my life".

Marie Stander was the Ireland and Munster back row's grandmother, and she passed away on the Tuesday of the week leading up to the Lions' make-or-break second test against the All Blacks in Wellington.

The 27-year-old was torn on whether he should remain with the squad in New Zealand or return home to South Africa, the country of his birth, to grieve with his family for Marie, who had helped to rear him.

He stayed, as an unused replacement for the Lions' 24-21 second-test victory, but played a crucial role off the bench during the third test, which ended 15-15 to seal an historic drawn series.

Stander was hit by intense private grief, when he should have been enjoying the pinnacle of his sporting career. The pain was eased by the support of his squad-mates, particularly those from the midweek team and video analyst Vinny Hammond.


"She passed away on the Tuesday, so, I didn't know whether I needed to go back or stay. The team came out and I was on the bench, so I just felt if I go back now, this is an opportunity I will never have again.

"I had visited her the year before, but it was very tough, because I was thinking about two things - am I going to get to play or not, and my grandmother has just passed away.

"It was really tough, because it was week five or week six of the tour, so it was a long time being away and I didn't have any family down in New Zealand. It was very difficult for me.

"I just said it to a few of the midweek team boys, then Vinny Hammond. Once I started talking about it, the emotion just all came out.

"Rory Best was a good shoulder to lean on. He was very good to talk to, and so was Robbie Henshaw and Vinny as well.

"I explained how bad I felt about it, about how much I missed her, because she was really involved in bringing me up. She looked after me when my mum and dad were out working.

"I just spoke to them and a lot of their grandmothers had passed away. It made life a lot easier - we started to make jokes again."

Stander, the son of farmers, grew up in South Africa's Western Cape, close to the city of George, and moved to Ireland in 2012.

He captained the Springboks Under-20s and was involved in senior Springbok training camps, but was deemed too small to play in his preferred back-row position, so he made the decision to move to Munster with wife Jean-Marie, as a 22-year-old.

He qualified to play for Ireland under residency rules.

"My grandmother was a nurse when she was a youngster, so she was always neatly dressed with an apron on. She was always looking after everyone, always making food.

"She was the light of all our lives, everyone loved her. Everyone from the whole town came to greet her on Sundays, because they knew they were going to get a piece of freshly baked bread.

"She didn't feel well on the Tuesday, and she rang the whole family and told them to come, because she didn't feel like she was going to make it to the end of the day. She is going to be very missed.

"Before my dad took over the farm, my grandma ran the farm. She was a farming housewife, but also a businesswoman."

"I just wanted to go out and play for her, because for the last few years, I couldn't really call her from Ireland, because she was struggling with her hearing. I used to always tell my mum and dad to tell her I played well at the weekend.

"Sometimes, I might not have even played, but she was always asking about me. I mean, she has over 30 grandkids, so she had a lot to think about!"

As well as having to cope with a personal loss, the Lions tour will remain long in Stander's memory, because of special bonds forged.

"James Haskell was a good man. Tommy Seymour, Greig Laidlaw, just there was a bunch of them.

"I spent a lot of time with Joe Marler, Dan Cole. Look - we were all involved in the midweek games, so we were really close."

"It was unbelievable - probably one thing I learnt from the midweek boys was to just enjoy the game more and to enjoy the time being together. We went for coffees a lot, spent a lot of time together and the craic was mighty.

"Rory Best, he was our captain and our leader - he made it fun for us. We showed it in the games we played."

"I wrote her name on my arm, because I just wanted to go out and enjoy the game for her, because I know that is what she would have wanted - just for me to go and enjoy playing rugby.

"The boys played some game in the first 40 minutes. It was stressful coming on, because it was such a close game, but once I got on the pitch and felt we had this special unity and felt like we had a grip on them.

"I just remember running to make a tackle at the end of the game in the corner to stop them from scoring a try and I remember thinking: 'I have got to make this, this is the biggest tackle of my life'.

"I think three of us together made that tackle.

"But I really enjoyed it, who doesn't want to go on to the pitch in a Lions jersey?

"It was a special tour, something a lot of people will never have again."