Faf de Klerk: ‘I guess moving to England was a blessing in disguise’

The Guardian Sports 2 weeks ago

Not many rugby players have described moving to Manchester as a blessing but Faf de Klerk is a singular scrum-half and not just because he looks half the height and weight of most of South Africa’s pack. He has become one of the players adopted by the Japanese media following the departure of their team from the tournament after losing to the Springboks.

No player trod more over the dreams of the host nation than De Klerk, whose kicking, sniping and ability to read Japan’s lines of attack and snuff out moves at their point of origin earned him the award for man of the match, although some in South Africa complained he should have released the ball more, a tactic that got Ireland nowhere in their group match against the host.

Yet two years ago, De Klerk’s prospects of appearing in this tournament looked no more likely than Jaco Peyper being made honorary president of the French Referees’ Society. He made his Test debut in the summer of June 2016 in the series against Ireland, the first of 11 caps in a year that turned out to be South Africa’s worst with eight defeats, culminating in a reverse to Wales in Cardiff that saw him sent to the sin-bin. Five scrum-halves, none of whom is here, were to be tried by South Africa before De Klerk’s time unexpectedly came again.

He left the Lions for Sale in 2017. South Africa then had a rule that overseas players with fewer than 30 caps would not be considered by the Springboks but, such was the immediate impact he made, the stipulation was dropped when Rassie Erasmus took charge at the beginning of last year.

“The main thing for me at Sale was that the role I was given needed me to make a difference to the team,” De Klerk said. “Responsibility came my way in terms of how we wanted to play, whether kicking or running. I kicked goals and took restarts and it all helped to get me to where I am now.

“I was given a number of starts and played a lot of rugby. Steve Diamond [Sale’s director of rugby] backed me all the time and I was able to enjoy myself and get into the groove again because the pressure was off me. When I joined Sale I thought that if I did well there I would have a chance of making the World Cup squad. What I did not expect was how quickly I got back into the frame. I guess moving to England was a blessing in disguise.”

Erasmus wasted no time in summoning De Klerk from exile. The scrum-half started the first Test against England in 2018, dictating the pace of the game after the tourists had taken a healthy lead. His scuttling and perpetual motion exploited the problems Eddie Jones’s team then had at the breakdown.

It was what Sale’s supporters had become used to, but it was a markedly different player who had struggled to make any sort of impact at international level in 2016, admittedly as part of a team who lacked authority and direction. The tame defeat against Wales, the side they face in Sunday’s semi-final in Yokohama, summed up where they were before Erasmus’s timely arrival.

“The only time I have faced Wales was three years ago,” said De Klerk, who was shown his yellow card that day for deliberately knocking on a pass intended for Gareth Davies, who will again be his opposite number on Sunday. “We had a completely different way of playing and attacking then and we did not get into what made them tick and play. In just one session this week, we were given a broad view of what they bring and where their threats are.

“As a team we are now more in tune with how an opponent wants to play and we are able to counter the stuff that they bring: we are better than we have been for a few years. It is going to be a slippery one on Sunday because any team who reach this stage of a World Cup will pose threats, but Rassie knows what his players bring and he backs us. It is up to us to perform.”

It is 12 years since South Africa won the cup and their other success in the tournament came 12 years before that. Those campaigns were based on defence and here they have conceded three tries in five matches, two to New Zealand on the opening weekend. They overwhelmed Japan with their mighty muscularity and refusal to indulge in a frolic.

“We have one of the biggest packs in the World Cup,” De Klerk said. “You can have size but to be physical is a different story. Every guy has brought that here and when one gets subbed, it seems like an even bigger one comes on. Eben Etzebeth gives players around him a standard to keep up with. We know what works for us and what doesn’t.”

At 12st 6lb (80kg) and 5ft 7in (1.72m), De Klerk would seem out of place in the land of the giants but what he lacks in size he makes up for in aggression. “We were nice and physical last weekend and we will be up for it again,” he said. “Wales will be different to Japan and it will be about finding space. One of the features of this tournament is that it has shown what matters is the size of your heart rather than your body. If you are ready to work hard you will reach your dreams. I play to inspire people and give confidence to young kids who might shy away because of their size.”

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