Faf de Klerk has proved to be a smart signing for the Sale Sharks, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
On the last Sunday in November, Faf de Klerk took his old Lions buddy Rohan Janse van Rensburg along the Sheffield road to one of the highest spots in the Peak District. It’s a 45-minute drive from the bright lights of Manchester, where De Klerk now lives, and the purpose was to see and touch snow. Contrary to the tales being spun by his Sale teammates, De Klerk had seen snow before, though he admits, ‘It was with my dad when I was a kid and I can’t remember where it was other than it was in South Africa. Rohan and I went up the Snake Pass and this was certainly the first time I’d seen snow in such quantity.’
If the snowy adventure was an exercise to foster lucky omens, then it worked: the following Friday at Worcester, Janse van Rensburg scored the first Sale try, De Klerk worked his usual magic and, despite spending almost half of the match with just 14 men on the field, Sale recorded their first away win in the league for more than a year.
As it happens, De Klerk was one of those banished to the bin after receiving a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on. Like many 10-minute exclusions copped for the same offence, it was a necessary sin; part instinct, part calculation. De Klerk’s absence came at a crucial time, with the match hanging in the balance, but the truth is that his would-be interception of opposing scrumhalf Francois Hougaard’s pass halted a phase that may ultimately have led to a score. That De Klerk actually got himself into a position to get a hand to the ball was yet another demonstration of the ubiquitous nature of the 26-year-old from Nelspruit.
De Klerk has answered Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond’s every prayer; a world-class scrumhalf who leads by example and is already a popular and fully integrated member of the squad. In late 2016 Diamond frequently bemoaned the club’s failings at No 9 and 10. Combinations were altered virtually on a weekly basis but none properly clicked. When, earlier last year, England flyhalf George Ford became available, Diamond was among the first to place an offer on the table.
It was a mission that failed. Getting world-class players to Sale has always been a challenge – even English ones. Sadly, and despite its rich history – they last won the English Premiership title 11 years ago – Sale remains an unfashionable Premiership outpost. Which explains why Diamond pulled off a real coup when he persuaded De Klerk to sign a three-year deal.
What has made De Klerk’s signing so good is that not only is he at the peak of his powers, but he also has an attitude that matches his quality. When the Sale flyhalf went sick just an hour before kick-off in the Premiership match at Saracens, De Klerk picked up the No 10 jersey; on another day, when the first-choice place-kicker went off-beam, De Klerk assumed responsibility and slotted the goals; and on the frequent occasions wings Denny Solomona and Milnerton High-schooled Scotland hero Byron McGuigan go racing into the corners and celebrating tries, it is invarably De Klerk who played a key role in putting them there.
‘I know Sale brought me here for a reason,’ De Klerk says. ‘I’m enjoying having a bit more responsibility.’
For some critics, De Klerk’s departure for Europe was a tad premature. He earned all 11 of his Springbok caps in 2016 and nine of those were as a starter. But unless there is a softening of SA Rugby’s selection policy,
or De Klerk fails to see out his full term at Sale, he will be ineligible until 2019.
‘I would still like to have that choice again,’ he says. ‘Perhaps they will change the caps rule? I will never say, in my mind, my Springbok career is over.’
Even so, there are no regrets that, like Super Rugby final colleagues Ruan Ackermann and the eighthman’s father coach Johan, he is now plying his trade in England.
‘I’m very pleased with the decision I made to come here. I’ve settled in nicely,’ De Klerk says. ‘The only disappointment so far has been the results.’
Until that win at Worcester, Sale were 10th of 12 in the Premiership – precisely where they finished last season. The realistic goal for Diamond will be to qualify for next season’s European Champions Cup, which means they must finish in the top half of the log.
The bond between Saffas in England is a strong one. De Klerk’s best friend in the Premiership is former Pumas teammate Vincent Koch (Saracens), but there are many more.
‘I’d better remember them all or I’ll be in trouble,’ he says.
The list is indeed a long one. And it includes former Bulls loose forward Jono Ross, who is another of Diamond’s new recruits.
‘Before moving into my own place I stayed at Jono’s. He had a spare room,’ says De Klerk.
An underrated perk of a Saffa’s European adventure is the opportunities it offers away from the rugby field. In early-December, De Klerk’s girlfriend, Miné van Niekerk, came over from South Africa to visit.
‘I’m enjoying living the lifestyle of a young person. You don’t get the sort of opportunities you get here when you’re living down south.
‘I’ve already been to France with Sale when we played Lyon. I’m looking forward to getting over to Dublin and to Scotland, which apparently is beautiful.’
– This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine