Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk feels that a stint with the Sale Sharks in the Premiership has prepared him for a tactical arm-wrestle against England this June. JON CARDINELLI reports from Johannesburg.
De Klerk has never wanted for confidence. Indeed, it was that unshakeable belief in his own ability that made him such a star for an attack-minded Lions side between 2014 and 2017.
However, there was some concern in 2016 that De Klerk lacked the game management and tactical kicking skills to be a force at international level. De Klerk played 11 Tests for the Boks that year, and a series of underwhelming performances led to his omission from the wider training group in early 2017.
The scrumhalf moved to Manchester ahead of the 2017-18 English season. Somewhat surprisingly, he was encouraged to develop his tactical game. It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, and was persuaded to rejoin the South African set-up.
De Klerk looks set to start in the first Test against England at Ellis Park. When he fronted the media in Johannesburg on Tuesday, he gave the impression that he is a different person and player to the one who left South Africa a year ago.
‘The move to Sale has really paid off in the sense that I’ve added a lot more to my game,’ De Klerk said. ‘I’m happy to say that I’ve found a way to add more value to my team.’
So, what’s changed?
De Klerk feels that he is a more rounded player than before. After competing in the wet weather up north, he has taken his kicking game to a new level.
His decision-making has improved and he is, by his own admission, able to switch between a running and kicking game plan.
‘I learned a lot overseas, that is when to kick and when to run. Perhaps in the past, I was too balls-to-the-wall in terms of wanting to attack.
‘I was given a lot of responsibility in terms of game management [at Sale]. They relied on me to make the exit kicks.
‘There was pressure on me coming in from outside, but it was a good thing as it forced me to grow. In fact, I wonder what might have happened if I wasn’t left out [of the Bok squad] last year.’
The Boks have been searching for Fourie du Preez’s replacement since the decorated scrumhalf retired after the 2015 World Cup. De Klerk, Rudy Paige, Francois Hougaard and Ross Cronjé all had a chance to wear the No 9 jersey in the ensuing two years, but no player made that position his own.
It’s hoped that De Klerk, who is the most experienced player in a Bok scrumhalf contingent that includes Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier and Cameron Wright, will change that in 2018 and in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
‘Some of those games in the Premiership, they’re a bit closer to Test rugby and will certainly prepare you for Test matches against northern hemisphere nations. Maybe it’s the same with Super Rugby preparing you more for clashes against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
‘England will look to put pressure on me this Saturday,’ De Klerk said of the coming clash at Ellis Park, his home ground when he was with the Lions.
‘We have to get our rucking structures right. They’re going to put the pressure on us in that area, and then look to force a bad pass from me. That’s the last thing we want: their defenders getting some momentum and coming off the line quickly to shut us down.’
De Klerk trained with what appeared to be the starting XV at St Stithians on Tuesday afternoon. De Klerk and Handré Pollard are likely to start at No 9 and 10 this Saturday.
‘I’m not taking anything for granted,’ said De Klerk. ‘If the other scrumhalves train well in the week then they could be in line for a starting place.
‘We have a new culture here and there’s no seniority [in that sense]. You have to earn your place every week.’
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