Ireland and Munster No.8 CJ Stander has announced he will retire from rugby at the end of the season.
The news will come as a shock to rugby as Stander, 30, is starting for Ireland in the ongoing Six Nations, and is regarded as one of the finest back-rows in Europe. But Stander has said he realised he has "entered the final stretch of my career".
Stander will retire from all forms of professional rugby at the end of the season, but says he will be available for the mid-year internationals, so would still be in British & Irish Lions contention.
"It was during a freezing training session at Munster towards the end of 2020 that I just knew I had entered the final stretch of my career," Stander said in a statement. "I asked myself whether I was still enjoying this enough to earn the continued support of Munster and Ireland, and to justify the sacrifices my family was making.
"From a performance perspective, the answer was yes. But 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. When all these intentions and considerations intercepted each other during that training session, I discussed the implications thereof with coach Johann van Graan and the Irish Rugby Union.
"I deeply appreciate that they tried to persuade me otherwise, but I knew it was time. I will be playing my final matches as a professional athlete with contentment and gratitude for what was and for what lies ahead in the next chapter of my life."
Stander has 50 caps for Ireland, and won a Test cap on the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 2017. He has played for Munster since 2012 after joining from the Bulls and qualified for Ireland in 2016.
The No.8 started for Ireland in their win over Scotland on Sunday, and would have been just 32 at the time of the next World Cup. However, he has decided to bow out of rugby on his own terms.
"All professional sports people are told "you will know when the time is right to hang up your boots," he added.
"During the lockdown, I did a stocktake of what matters most to me in life. My faith, family and this incredible game I have played since I was six years old easily topped the list. However, 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.
"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. I wouldn't change a thing. The 150 matches I played for Munster were some of the most precious and formative experiences of my life. My blood will remain Munster Red long after I have said my goodbyes to the people of Limerick.I have just played my 50th Test for Ireland.
"As I now shift my focus squarely back to my family, I do so hoping that I'm leaving the Irish jersey in an even better space than when I first inherited it. Ireland has enormous talent breaking through the ranks, and it is now time for me to step back and allow a new generation of players to answer Ireland's call."