By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland dedicated a potentially transformative 32-18 Six Nations victory over England on Saturday to an emotional CJ Stander after the flanker's surprise announcement this week that he will retire from the game at the end of the season.
The 30-year-old Stander said he arrived at the decision during months of on-off COVID-19 lockdown in Ireland and plans to return home to his native South Africa.
His 51st and final cap was one to remember as Andy Farrell's side played their best rugby in three years and his team mates sent him off with a rendition of "Simply The Best" in the dressing room.
"A really fitting performance for one special person. I cannot say enough about him as a bloke, he's the most kind-hearted and most genuine bloke that you'll ever meet," Farrell told a news conference.
"He's given his heart and soul to the jersey, to the green and the red (of Munster). He means the world to us."
Farrell said the team tried to keep a lid on an emotional week ahead of the game. Stander, who has been a near ever present since making his debut five years ago, let it all out after the final whistle as he departed the field in tears.
Struggling for words, the Munster player said he wanted to give everything after the opportunity Ireland had given him and he was just sorry his family and the Irish fans were not able to be at the empty Aviva Stadium.
"I'm forever grateful, dreams do come true. Week-in week-out to go out and perform for the team, for the staff and for the public and supporters of Ireland has been a pleasure for me and my family," Stander told Ireland Virgin Media television.
"From the bottom of my heart, thank you very much. They are great people and this is a special team, things are going to happen for this team."
Having struggled for form for much of Farrell's 13-month tenure, Saturday's dominant victory put Ireland on course for a top-three finish and set a marker for next season.
"We keep saying that we believe in ourselves, in what we're trying to do and that every day we see ourselves getting better and better and hopefully there are a few signs there," Farrell said. "It solidifies to us that we're on the right track."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Ken Ferris)