Debut will be beyond my wildest dreams, says excited Stander
CJ Stander admits he could never have dreamed he would become a British and Irish Lion when he watched the tourists in his native South Africa in 2009.
The former South Africa Under-20s captain looked on in awe as the Springboks pipped the tourists 28-25 in the second Test in Pretoria eight years ago - but never once considered himself a future Lion.
Flick the switch from 2009 to 2017 though, and the 27-year-old is not only a senior member of Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad, he will now make his Lions debut in tomorrow morning's Eden Park clash with the Blues.
"I watched that live game in South Africa in Pretoria in 2009, it was something special," said Stander of the Lions' second Test eight years ago. "I just remember the Lions coming out, it was some shift. They were just unlucky in the end.
"I could never have imagined at that point that I'd be a Lion. I was 19 at that point, so there was a lot on my mind.
"It was probably only a year ago that I started to think the Lions was a possibility.
"It was spoken about at a press conference and I felt that I wasn't even close to it at all. But then I started hearing excitement from people, supporters, suggesting I could be in that mix.
"So then I felt I just wanted to challenge myself, maybe to put my name in the hat."
Stander will line up alongside James Haskell and Justin Tipuric in a balanced back-row as the Lions bid to keep the Blues' full-strength line-up at bay.
Ken Owens will captain a side showing a full 15 changes from the tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians.
Munster back-rower Stander admitted he has had to pinch himself at becoming a Lion, and settling into a squad that represents the very best talent in the northern hemisphere.
"The Lions is something that you work towards, the passion of the boys who have been in the jersey before you; four nations coming together for one goal," said Stander. "It takes a lot of hard work to be part of a bigger squad. It means you've worked hard to get there. The job's not done yet but you're part of it.
"I'm looking forward to playing alongside the passion the boys have for the jersey, and the excitement. I feel like a kid again, when you get in that first team, you almost can't believe that you're there."