After playing a key role in the Springboks’ World Cup success, Faf de Klerk is setting his sights on new goals, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
In the immediate aftermath of the Springboks’ World Cup triumph, Faf de Klerk sent social media into overdrive and inspired a uniquely Proudly South African craze.
The scrumhalf ‘broke the internet’, as they say, when pictures emerged of him celebrating in the Bok change room wearing nothing but a speedo in the colours of the South African flag. What added to the ‘trending’ social media moment was some of the images also showed De Klerk interacting with England’s Prince Harry while he was clad in just his colourful swimwear.
When the Springboks went on a trophy tour across South Africa, several fans lined the roads wearing similar speedos as they imitated De Klerk’s look, while in the weeks to follow, the scrumhalf even conducted an interview with Englishmen Chris Ashton and Danny Care in which all were humorously wearing the now-famous gear.
It was a light moment that encapsulated the feel-good spirit and array of unforgettable memories that have endured well beyond that magical day in Yokohama on 2 November.
And even as the game has gone into an unprecedented state of lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, the achievements of the Springboks in Japan and what it means for the future of the game remain a topical subject as the world champions look to ensure it inspires a period of sustained success.
SA Rugby magazine caught up with De Klerk on his return to South Africa after duties for English club the Sale Sharks had been halted by the suspension of competition.
When our conversation naturally drifted to his World Cup recollections, he pauses briefly before answering each question. It offered a sense of him almost reliving the unforgettable experience.
What is the one memory that still stands out?
‘I think the first thing is that although we spent a lot of time in Japan, there were no issues at all in the camp,’ he says. ‘Everyone got along so well and the way everything was handled was so good for us as players. The people in Japan were also amazing; they went out of their way to make it a special tournament. I could go on for days about the experiences of each game and the emotions, but the first memory is the greatest one, which was winning the final. Lately there have been a lot of videos from that final and it was great to revive those memories.
‘For me, it was just great to be part of that occasion, it really did feel like one of those perfect games,’ he continues. ‘That’s not to say everything went perfectly, not at all, but I could feel 10 minutes into the game that whatever England threw at us, we had an answer for it, and they weren’t doing anything to break us. I remember standing on the field and thinking the guys were up for this game, charged up, physically ready and because our forwards were so dominant, it made things so much easier for us backs.
‘People think we changed the way we played in the final, but we just got so many penalty advantages we could have a bit more of a go. That made it a more exciting game, but it was great to see how physically ready everybody was for that game. On the day, for me, it was a perfect game and perfect day.’
That team performance has been dissected in minute detail, but one passage of play serves as a microcosm of what the Springboks stood for.
On the half-hour mark, and with the Boks leading by only 6-3, England went through phase after phase of relentless attack. For three minutes, the South Africans tackled and tackled and tackled, refusing to allow their line to be breached. Eventually the ball was knocked on and England had to settle for a penalty and three points.
It was a defining moment as a try went a-begging, while the Springboks drew immense confidence when it became clear there was no answer to overcoming this brutal demonstration of cohesive defence.
Again, De Klerk pauses before answering a question about the key facets of such a display.
‘Probably the first thing that I felt was that if someone misses a tackle, our philosophy was that it’s not about that guy making a mistake. As a team, we agreed that we needed to cover for each other, no matter what. We did our analysis 100 times over, we knew what we needed to do and specifically in that final, when they couldn’t score after 20-odd phases, that gave us real confidence.
‘Of course, work rate was a big thing, never giving up and putting your body on the line. If you stop a guy, but break your arm, it’s almost worth it. We had no fear of making a mistake in our defensive system, because you always knew someone would be there to cover for you. That mindset was important.’
The Springboks’ comprehensive and confident performance in the title decider also stood in stark contrast to the tense and tetchy three-point win over Wales in the semi-final.
SA Rugby magazine understands that there was a brief moment in the lead-up to that match when coach Rassie Erasmus had a feeling of misgiving that things were not going to go their way against a Wales team that had won the previous four successive games against the Boks.
Yet, something clicked just in time, and although it was far from a convincing victory, the Springboks got the job done.
‘The thing for us is that we had notoriously struggled against Wales over the last few years,’ De Klerk reflects. ‘They are a difficult team to play against because we normally feel that if we’re up for it on the day we can physically dominant opposition sides. But Wales never go away and are up for it for every second of the game, and they’re not going to be scared off. They also have a good kicking game, and strong defence and attacking structures. So we knew it would be tough, but thankfully we got the edge. Even though it was really close, I think we got confidence from that game. We stuck to our plans and we weren’t stressed.
‘Then going into the final, we knew this wasn’t just about us or the team anymore, it was about something bigger. I think that really hit home for us in that final week. The guys from the wider squad who trained against us were amazing and so supportive. We all realised we couldn’t just focus on our mistakes, or what we were doing on the field as individuals; I could feel that with every run and tackle we made.’
This philosophy – based around a team motto of ‘Let the main thing stay the main thing’ – was all about putting egos aside and ensuring that the collective goal was prioritised over any individual considerations.
How would De Klerk describe it? He pauses … and then answers with careful consideration: ‘Coach Rassie and all the coaches said from the beginning, if you’re not going to fit into the environment and take disappointment well, you’re probably not going to last long in the side, no matter how good you may be. From the beginning, the squad he picked was based on a lot of factors, not just on-field performances, but also how each individual handled himself off the field and handled certain situations. That’s why everything went well.
‘If you didn’t get picked, it was about carrying on and seeing the bigger picture, and preparing the playing team as best as possible. We knew we’d be in Japan for the longest time of any side, so we had to deal with any situation, and ensure we had that unity and understanding as a squad.’
In the months since the World Cup final, and during the lockdown period, there has been time to reflect on this World Cup journey. Yet, the golden period to bask in that afterglow has also come and gone.
It’s with this in mind that De Klerk casts an eye to the future, and the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
‘It’s definitely important to refocus a bit. For me, it was good to go back to Sale after the World Cup and reapply myself. You couldn’t just win a World Cup and go back to your club and then not keep performing. So I had to refocus and prove my value in that squad, and luckily the club has been doing well.
‘Winning the World Cup is the ultimate goal as a player, but you need to set new goals. The first one is to get back on the pitch and start playing well consistently again after this break. Whoever gets the chance needs to build on what we achieved last year. And if I got the opportunity to play against the Lions, I would want to play well and be part of a successful tour. That would be another dream come true, because the opportunity doesn’t come around very often.
‘After going to Sale in 2017, I never thought I’d be in this position, and so I want to ensure I make the most of it.’
Faf de Klerk on the healthy depth at scrumhalf:
‘I’ve always thought we had good depth at scrumhalf, even though there were stages when people were saying there was no one really taking it forward. But I always thought there were options, and it’s now especially good to see young guys coming through. Look at a guy like Herschel Jantjies; you can just see the confidence he’s been playing with, and I had a great time with him personally, too, at the World Cup.
‘It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the guys, and you can’t just expect that because you were in the World Cup final, that you will hold that place. There’s a new energy around the jersey and so much competition. I saw that in every Super Rugby game, that guys have a new lease of life and clearly really to want to play for the Springboks. There is pressure and you have to perform and, if yo do not, there will be someone waiting, ready to fill your space. That creates a good environment and I know that brings out the best in me, knowing someone is pushing me.’