Ireland's Stander announces shock retirement at end of season

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FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2019 - Quarter Final - New Zealand v Ireland

(Reuters) - Ireland flanker CJ Stander on Tuesday surprisingly announced that he would retire from all forms of rugby at the end of the season, just days after winning his 50th international cap.

South Africa-born Stander, 30, made his Ireland debut against Wales five years ago and won his 50th cap in Sunday's 27-24 Six Nations victory against Scotland. He was part of the side that won the Six Nations title in 2018.

Stander said he arrived at the decision during Ireland's COVID-19 lockdown and plans to return home to his native South Africa.

"I came to the realisation that my commitment to rugby has started to take an unfair toll on my family, who both in Limerick and South Africa have made considerable sacrifices for more than 25 years to allow me to live my dream," Stander said in a statement.

"I am not saddened by my decision. I've had a full and utterly enjoyable rugby career, and I can now look back on a journey that offered me rewards, memories and surprises beyond anything I could have scripted for myself."

Stander joined Munster in 2012 on a two-year contract from South African Super 15 side the Blue Bulls. He went on to make 150 appearances for the Irish club, winning their Player of the Year award three times.

"What a fantastic player and person CJ has been for Munsterrugby and @IrishRugby - thanks and respect," Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter.

Stander, who toured with the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand four years ago, said it was during "a freezing training session at Munster towards the end of 2020" that he realised he had entered the final stretch of his career.

"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," he said.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton said he was "shocked" and had not seen it coming when a meeting was called before Stander made his announcement.

"Literally, if you gave me a thousand things to guess, it wouldn't have even registered on it," Sexton said, adding that Stander was retiring 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."

Stander will be available to represent Munster until his contract expires in June, and for international duty until the end of the mid-year Test window.

(Reporting by Arvind Sriram and Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis)