Faf: I’ve missed the feeling of wearing Bok jersey

Faf de Klerk has all the attributes to be a match-winner for the Springboks against the British & Irish Lions, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

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When it comes to commonplace off-field observations, De Klerk is famous for a couple of things. The obvious one is his flowing blond hair, while stripping down to a Speedo in the colours of the South African flag after the World Cup final added to his rugby poster-boy status.

Off the field, De Klerk is also famously down to earth. There is no pretension or posturing when chatting to the World Cup-winning scrumhalf, who is one of the most highly regarded players in world rugby. After all, such status in the game is a far cry from his early days on the professional rugby scene, when he plied his trade for the unfashionable Pumas.

And yet, De Klerk’s chilled ‘surfer boy’ look and relaxed demeanour is completely at odds with his on-field antics. When he takes the field, the 29-year-old is a ferocious ball of energy and activity, whether it be snapping at the heels of defenders or offering a threat with his sniping runs around the fringes.

After the scrumhalf made a stunning return to the Test scene in the memorable 2018 series against England, coach Eddie Jones referred to De Klerk as a ‘little buzzsaw’.

Such a description was aptly illustrated in the final clash of the three-Test tour when De Klerk – all 1.72m and 80kg of him – caught towering England forward Nathan Hughes (1.96m and 125kg) off the back of a scrum and drove him back five metres in a tackle.

Then there was the unforgettable moment in the World Cup semi-final when Wales lock Jake Ball scragged the diminutive Springbok by the collar of his jersey and went face to face with the smaller man. De Klerk’s response: a big, beaming smile.

Such competitive scenes have been sorely missed in the absence of Springbok rugby since the World Cup. The wait, though, is nearly over. The British & Irish Lions series is around the corner and the Boks’ ‘little buzzsaw’ is brimming with excitement at the prospect of gathering for national duties once again.

‘I’m really keen to see all the boys again and the management, and just to get stuck in. You really take your play to another level when you pull on that green jersey and I miss that feeling of brotherhood between the players and knowing what we are playing for. It gives you a powerful feeling and I miss it.’

Like many professional sportsmen, contending with a pandemic that has threatened the very fabric of the game has come with a variety of challenges. For De Klerk, it’s led to a period of more than a year where he has remained based solely in the UK.

The usual trips home to see family and friends have had to be sacrificed due to travel restrictions and the need to adhere to strict Covid-19 regulations in line with Sale Sharks’ protocols.

In October last year, the club was hit with a serious coronavirus outbreak.

‘My viral count was the worst out of the lot, so I had it pretty bad. It wasn’t nice at all, obviously, but it came at a bad time too. If we had played that next game we could have made the Premiership semi-finals.

‘The positive, though, was that it was at the end of the season, so we didn’t have to train and that definitely helped. It was like a very bad flu. I had a pretty bad fever,  was tired and didn’t have a lot of energy.

‘Then after about 10 days I felt pretty good and slowly started training for the first week, doing light bicycle work and stuff like that. About three weeks after I contracted it, I just woke up and felt so much more energised. That made me realise what an effect it had for those first few weeks. Thankfully, now it’s all good; no problems, nothing.’

De Klerk says players have had to get used to being tested two or three times a week. They’ve also had pay cuts, competition uncertainty and the surreal experience of playing without fans.

‘We’re getting used to it but it’s very strange to play in empty stadiums,’ he says. ‘We’ve missed the fans a lot; they just give you more energy. But when I look back at everything during the whole process, I keep thinking we are the fortunate ones who could at least keep doing our jobs and what we love to do.

‘We can go to training, we can see our friends, and I think we’ve had it pretty decent compared to a lot of other people around the world losing their jobs and not being able to see any friends or family. It has definitely been one of the toughest years.’

On a personal level, after fully recovering from Covid-19 and as a new season progressed, De Klerk has begun to find his form of old. In early March, Sale Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson had little hesitation in hailing the halfback as ‘simply world class’, while also suggesting he expected the South African superstar to just keep getting better and better.

‘I think, when we started playing again I was a little bit up and down form-wise. I’d have a good game then one maybe not as consistent,’ De Klerk admits. ‘But since Alex Sanderson’s been here, things have changed. My game has definitely improved, and also I think that because of the way the rest of the players are performing I’m playing more consistent rugby and enjoying it a lot more.’

De Klerk also adopts a philosophical approach when reflecting on what it has taken to get this point.

‘It’s always been my mindset that there’s no use in worrying about the uncontrollables, so you just need to make sure that when you get an opportunity to play for your club or for your country or whatever, you are 100% ready for that,’ De Klerk says.

‘I’m trying to really focus on just doing as best I can for my club because I know that if I play well then it’s a lot easier for me to get selected for the Boks on form rather than relying on reputation — if that makes sense.

‘I’m trying to push myself as much as possible. If I think about six months ago, wondering about the Lions tour, worrying about whether my parents can come and visit me, worrying if we can go back to South Africa, I’ve realised it’s actually no use worrying about things like that.

‘When they announce that stuff will happen, then you can go ahead and plan. But to constantly worry about things just puts extra pressure on yourself and puts you in a bad mind-space. So, I’m just trying to take the positive out of every situation, which helps me daily, and to not take anything for granted.’

Certainly, when it comes to Springbok rugby, nothing has been assured over the past 18 months. Yet, a team that has been sitting on the Test rugby runway will finally get lift-off when they tackle the British & Irish Lions from July.

As the Springboks assemble for duty, there is no doubt De Klerk remains a lethal weapon in the team’s arsenal. The incumbent Bok No 9 has regularly come up against star players from the northern hemisphere and is one of the 2019 World Cup winners who has benefited from regular, meaningful game time.

And while there may be some questions about who might serve as the backup scrumhalf on the bench, there will be little doubt that De Klerk remains one of the first names coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus scribble on to a prospective starting team sheet.

His natural pace means he is able to provide prompt service from the breakdown, while on defence he often effectively shoots out of line like a heat-seeking missile. And should the need arise, De Klerk can also deploy his trusty left boot in a kick-based gameplan such as we saw in the World Cup semi-final against Wales.

On this note, it’s interesting to hear De Klerk’s views on how he expects the Lions to play against the Boks.

‘Of course, it will first come down to who they decide to pick and then you’ll get a sense of how they want to play. But looking at some of the players, obviously a lot of the teams in the UK come with a really strong kicking strategy, so I’m certain the Lions will bring a great kicking game and that’s something we are going to have to make plans to deal with.

‘It’s always going to be a massive physical battle. Those guys are playing for a lot, so there’s going to be a lot of intensity going into those Test matches.

‘At the end of the day, we are going to have to figure out, through their selections, how they want to play against us. I’m sure the management staff have done a lot of work on how Gatland likes to coach his teams and I think that would be pretty similar going into how he would coach the Lions side.’

Certainly, it can’t be forgotten how Erasmus admitted to having sleepless nights before the World Cup semi-final as he struggled to identify the ‘soul’ of the Wales side – then coached by Gatland.

As unforgettably revealed in the ‘Chasing the Sun’ documentary, Erasmus admitted to changing his mind just before that game and ultimately instructed his team to simply ‘f**k up the opposition physically’.

There was also a lot more to it than that, though, and it will certainly be interesting to see what sort of masterplans the Erasmus-Nienaber brains trust have cooked up after an inordinate amount of time to plot and plan behind the scenes.

‘When we do get together, there’s obviously going to be a lot of detail we will need to absorb in a short time,’ De Klerk says. ‘But if I know the coaching staff back home, they’ll have been planning for years. I have full confidence in that and the plans that will be put in place.

‘The way all our sessions are run is really good and we never go into a game underprepared. If you also compare it to the Lions squad coming over to South Africa, they are also not going to have a lot of time together. So, it’s going to be pretty much an even playing field on that front.

‘At the end of the day, just being able to continue the tradition of the Lions coming to South Africa is massive. There is so much to look forward to now!’

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Craig Lewis