Faf de Klerk’s energy has breathed new life into the Springbok attack, writes JON CARDINELLI.
De Klerk is one of those people who can make you laugh or drive you crazy. When you think or talk about him, you’ll struggle to suppress a smile.
Eddie Jones allowed himself a chuckle when fielding a question about the Springbok scrumhalf during the series between South Africa and England in 2018.
‘He’s a little buzzsaw,’ the England coach said after De Klerk was named Man of the Match in the first Test at Ellis Park. ‘He was quick to the ball and picked up his runners well.’
Handre Pollard needed a moment to compose himself after a similar question was put to him in an interview with SA Rugby magazine. ‘Faf’s a character,’ the Bok flyhalf stated diplomatically before adopting a more serious tone.
‘I cannot give enough credit to guys like Faf and Willie le Roux in terms of how the Boks have improved,’ Pollard said. ‘They’ve made a difference to the attack through their experience and individual contributions. Their decision-making is on another level.’
Swys de Bruin is walking out of a Bok training session when I reach him on his phone. If anyone knows about De Klerk’s natural gifts – and his growth over the past five seasons – it’s the man who has mentored him at the Lions and Boks.
And as is the case with most conversations about the South African jack-in-the-box, this one begins with a knowing laugh.
‘He’s a bundle of energy,’ the Bok attack coach says. ‘The way he trains is the way he plays. He’s forever lifting the spirits and inspiring his teammates to keep pushing.
‘He’s always been a special player, and not just on attack,’ De Bruin adds. ‘Time and again, we see Faf popping up to make a tackle on a prop that no one else can. He’ll hit a perfect kick that drops inside the opposition 22 and puts us in a great position. He’s got so much X factor and that comes through in all aspects of his game.’
De Klerk is not the same player he was. The move to Sale Sharks in 2017 forced him to sharpen his kicking skills and his game management. Following his recall to the Boks, he was tasked with spearheading the South African attacking revolution. The Boks claimed several big wins in 2018 and De Klerk’s impact was recognised with a World Rugby Player of the Year nomination.
‘I’d like to think I’ve become a better player who can add more value to my side,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It fills me with confidence to know I’m in a position to make a difference.’
De Klerk goes on to detail his growth over the past two seasons at Sale.
‘You have to adapt to survive,’ he says. ‘That phrase takes on a new meaning in the northern hemisphere, though, where you are faced with all sorts of challenges, from the weather to the different styles of the opposition teams. Your skill set comes under scrutiny. You have to think differently, play differently and find new ways of doing things.
‘I’ve constantly been pushing myself. When I got the chance to play for the Boks again, I knew I had to make an impression. I picked up a lot of confidence over the Test season, even though we had some ups and downs. I took that back into the English Premiership with Sale and just never stopped working. I’ve had that World Cup spot in my sights for so long and I won’t take anything for granted until I’m on that plane to Japan.
‘Decision-making was the big shift,’ he continues. ‘The best No 9s have a sense of control. They know when to run, to pass or to kick. They see the whole game and look for opportunities. I’ve learned a lot and am still learning to be that all-round threat. To be honest, I still get excited sometimes and have a go. I’m lucky I have a captain like Jono Ross, who brings me back to earth.’
De Bruin weighs in on this point. Four years ago, he attempted to provide De Klerk with a few guidelines.
‘He learned very quickly. I also learned from him. It was a game of give and take. He needed to understand what was required from him in a team structure, and perhaps I needed to be reminded that you can’t put a player like that in a box.
‘He’s come a long way since then,’ De Bruin says. ‘Playing in England has forced him to sharpen his decision-making, and we are reaping the benefits of that at the Boks. Experiencing the tough conditions and unique challenges of Europe has forced him to take his mental game to the next level.’
De Klerk elaborates on the part Bok mentor Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber have played in his transition from Premiership performer to Test star.
‘They challenged our way of thinking,’ De Klerk says. ‘They gave us freedom to make decisions, but also made it clear that we needed to take responsibility for our choices.
‘It was great to have their backing. It was great to see players backing each other and getting excited about some of the decisions that were being taken. After a while, we were all on the same page. It wasn’t a case of “this is the Lions or WP or Sharks’ style of play”. We had developed something that was our own. People have noticed a change on attack, but the truth is that we’ve become a greater all-round threat.’
After what transpired in 2017, few would have predicted that De Klerk’s story would include a World Cup chapter. He was left out of the Bok squad and wasn’t even considered for the SA A group for the matches against the French Barbarians.
He’s pushed himself over the past two years to develop his skills. As a proud South African living thousands of kilometres away from his loved ones, he’s been forced to face yet another test of strength.
‘I’ve always been a positive person who relies heavily on my faith. In a sense, it was a challenge going from a very religious environment at the Lions to a set-up without that at Sale. I was up there in Manchester without my girlfriend, friends and family. I’m grateful I had my faith to fall back on.
‘When I look back now, I can say that I learned a lot about myself and am stronger for the experience. It was an important step in my life. I don’t think I would have grown as much if I had stayed in South Africa. Over there, you also have the opportunity to travel to Europe and experience so many different countries and cultures.’
Fitness-permitting, De Klerk will realise a lifelong ambition at the World Cup. As the conversation shifts to the global event, he battles to contain his excitement.
‘Every young boy dreams about it, don’t they? I remember watching Jonny Wilkinson kicking those goals at the 2003 World Cup. George Gregan was a hero of mine, as was Jason Robinson. Pretty much any player who had a bit of flair. Percy Montgomery was another source of inspiration, and not only because of his blond hair,’ De Klerk laughs. ‘His attacking game and dependable left boot caught my eye.
‘I won’t stop working to become the all-round scrumhalf. That’s what a team needs, a player who can alternate between a running and kicking game. However, I am always going to be that guy who loves to have a go when it’s on. That’s who I am. It comes naturally, and in some situations I suppose it can add value to the team.
‘I want to be spoken about in the same breath as those greats and to be remembered as a special attacking player. Who knows, if opposition teams view me as a threat, maybe they will focus on shutting me down and it will mean more space for my teammates.’
It may come as a shock to those who haven’t followed the Premiership, but De Klerk has occasionally been tasked with kicking for goal. As De Bruin suggests, you just can’t keep this guy out of the contest.
‘Sale needed me to kick, so I put in a lot of time after training sessions sharpening that part of my game. I suppose that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about for a while until I rejoin Sale.’
That said, De Klerk’s goal-kicking skills may prove handy in a crisis. Imagine a scenario that sees the Boks losing their first- and second-choice goal-kickers to injuries in a World Cup playoff match. What if the Boks need someone to step up and kick the winning penalty in the dying moments of the contest?
De Klerk wastes no time in giving an answer. The speed of his response speaks volumes for his confidence, as well as his appetite for a challenge.
‘That would be great, hey? The dream scenario! To be honest, a lot would have to happen [with regard to injuries] for Rassie to turn to me as a goal-kicker. I back the guys that we have there to do the job.
‘If it was necessary, though, then why not? I’d love to have a go.’
*This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine
Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images