Chris Cloete has emerged as a serious Springbok contender at a much-needed time, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Cloete is no one-season wonder. At 26 years old, the well-built flanker has travelled a rather winding route to Super Rugby prominence (he even spent some time playing rugby league in Sri Lanka), but he has come of age over the past couple of seasons with the unheralded Kings.
Last year, the breakdown and ball scavenging work completed by CJ Velleman and Cloete (before he suffered a serious knee injury) was one of the few positive talking points during a season where the Kings won just two games.
However, they have already bettered that record this season – last Saturday’s emphatic win over the Rebels was their third of this campaign – and there can be no downplaying the role that Cloete has played in the Kings’ revival in 2017.
Boasting biceps that recently became something of a preoccupation for the commentators in Australia, Cloete’s raw strength has seen him metaphorically punch above his weight at the contact points, while his low centre of gravity has made him a menace at the breakdowns and on defence.
In fact, Cloete’s work ethic in training and abilities in the gym are the stuff of legend (he once completed 28 reps in a 100kg bench press test, while he can complete nearly 50 successive wide overhand pull-ups).
In many ways, Cloete’s burly build and ball-stealing abilities have drawn comparisons with archetypal specialist fetcher and former Bok Heinrich Brüssow, while he is very much in the mould of players such as Wallabies stars David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
So just how do Cloete's numbers add up after 10 rounds of Super Rugby? Over nine games played, he has seen 547 minutes of action, while completing 154m, 39 carries and beating 10 defenders.
Yet it’s really without the ball in hand where Cloete has come into his own. The flanker is ranked equal second in the competition for tackles made (94), with only Chris Alcock having completed a couple more. And according to the All Out Rugby stats, he is also ranked first for turnovers won (14).
Cloete’s progression as a player has come out a time when Allister Coetzee will be carefully considering his loose forward options for the June series against France, and the season beyond.
Ulster-based Marcell Coetzee was widely expected to earn a recall to play a prominent role, but the dynamic flanker was ruled out for four months at the end of March after suffering a serious knee injury.
Last year, Coetzee resolutely backed Francois Louw to serve as his opensider, and the Bath-based stalwart started as many as nine Tests in 2016, but surely there is a need to begin looking beyond the soon-to-be 32-year-old.
There are few other local openside flankers who have really stood out in Super Rugby so far this season, and while Jaco Kriel has impressed for the Lions, he remains a work-in-progress as an out-and-out ‘fetcher’.
At a time when the Boks are desperately in need of some fresh energy and players who can add a different dynamic to their play, Cloete ticks all those boxes. He has an insatiable appetite for action, and he will run and tackle and contest at the breakdown all day.
And if Cloete has performed with such commitment and intensity for the largely unheralded Kings, just imagine how motivated he would be if he were rewarded with a green and gold jersey this June.
The robust loose forward has proven he has the ability to maintain his performance levels for the full 80 minutes, but he is also the sort of pocket rocket who could just as easily add impact value off the bench.
It really now comes down to whether or not Coetzee and Co see value in a specialist fetcher, and are willing to back the sort of player who certain members of the South African rugby community might be quick to label to be ‘too small for Test rugby’.
And yet, at a time when the Boks need to be bold, they could do far worse than provide Cloete with the opportunity to add his terrier-like qualities to the national cause.
Photo: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images