Faf de Klerk established himself as one of the Springboks’ most influential players in 2018, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
At the start of 2018, the Springbok No 9 jersey remained well and truly up for grabs. When SA Rugby magazine sat down with Rassie Erasmus before the Test season, the Bok coach rattled off a list of potential scrumhalf candidates, but conceded that they still desperately needed to find the solution to this problem position.
‘It is a concern that nobody has nailed down that position and said “I am the Bok No 9.” We have some good scrumhalves at our disposal, but nobody has taken ownership of the position at the Boks over the past two seasons,’ Erasmus said.
Since the retirement of Fourie du Preez in early 2016, the Boks have been searching for a successor. Faf de Klerk started nine Tests that year, while Rudy Paige wore the No 9 jersey on three occasions. However, in 2017, then coach Allister Coetzee put his faith in Ross Cronjé, who featured as the starting scrumhalf in 10 matches.
When Erasmus took over the top job, he realised the importance of expediently and accurately identifying the correct man for the all-important job of controlling proceedings from the scrumhalf berth. After all, it’s no coincidence that World Rugby’s two leading teams, the All Blacks and Ireland, have world-class No 9s in Aaron Smith and Conor Murray.
In the end, Erasmus made the call to De Klerk, who had found a new lease on life playing for the Sale Sharks. Having always been recognised as a player with an attacking X-factor, the 27-year-old’s all-round game underwent an evolution in England where he was required to take on more responsibility with his kicking game and decision-making.
So, after more than a year in the international wilderness, De Klerk slotted in at No 9 for the first Test against England in June. It didn’t take long for him to justify his national recall. On the quarter-hour mark, and with the Boks trailing by 21 points, De Klerk sparked a remarkable fightback when he showed superb vision to dot down for a crucial try.
Over the next hour, he looked constantly threatening around the fringes while regularly demonstrating the improvements to his kicking game. The sniping scrumhalf also sent the crowd into raptures when he darted around one ruck to tackle Henry Slade, causing him to lose the ball forward as England were looking to launch an attack midway through the second half.
It was a game-shaping, Man of the Match performance and one that largely set the tone for the remainder of a standout season in which De Klerk punched consistently above his weight and finally provided the Boks with a much-needed answer at No 9.
When SA Rugby magazine catches up with De Klerk in November, it’s not long after he has been named as one of World Rugby’s Player of the Year nominees along with Beauden Barrett, Malcolm Marx, Rieko Ioane and Johnny Sexton. He offers a wry chuckle when reflecting on a season that exceeded all expectations.
‘It’s quite a strange thing. I never thought about something like an award nomination as a goal to set for myself at the beginning of the year. I first heard about it when my girlfriend told me she’d seen it on Instagram.
‘But to be named alongside those incredible candidates and to earn that nomination is such an honour. It’s something to be proud of, but certainly not something I expected.’
Although De Klerk did enjoy a healthy taste of Test rugby in 2016, his form wavered at times as he battled to establish the right balance between when to run, kick or pass. However, after a season with the Sale Sharks, he returned to the national fold a different player.
‘In my first game against England, I can honestly say I felt much more comfortable – almost knowing what to expect and how my game has grown. I have to give credit to Sale for that, as I think my kicking game improved during that time in England. So I was able to feel comfortable when I came back to the Boks, and that made a big difference.
‘The vibe at the Boks has also been unbelievable; it’s completely different to when I was there before. That also comes with winning, but I must say it’s been really good. The players and coaches have a real understanding and I found myself enjoying my rugby.’
Understandably, when De Klerk reflects on the year that was, he pinpoints the famous win over the All Blacks in Wellington as a defining encounter for a Springbok team in transition.
‘That Test was one of my ultimate career highlights,’ he says. ‘The way we prepared for that game and the belief we had in the team is difficult to put into words. We were all up for it and no matter what happened in the game, we stuck to what we needed to do.
‘We also saw what it meant for the people back home to get that result and how it positively influenced the belief of our supporters. As a team, it was a big moment to realise what we’re capable of and to see that we’re heading in the right direction.’
The Boks backed up that result with another victory over the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth, with De Klerk finishing off a well-worked try in another impressive performance.
A week later, the Boks fronted up for the highly-anticipated rematch against New Zealand. This time they sought to implement a tactical kicking game aimed at turning the All Blacks around and forcing the world champs to play from deep.
‘We formed a really good plan against the All Blacks,’ says De Klerk, when discussing the tactical and technical evolution the Boks have undergone. ‘While some might think you don’t want to give New Zealand the ball at all, we saw that they aren’t used to exiting from their 22, and always control that territory game. So we thought it could be an area to exploit because they don’t spend a lot of time doing that.
‘It was an example of how we are looking to try new things and adapt from game to game. A side like Australia are really good in the air with a player like Israel Folau, so tactically we’re growing a lot with video analysis and we’re altering our approach accordingly. In 2018, we demonstrated a few different ways of playing and are capable of changing it up during the game if necessary.’
In this regard, De Klerk has been the fulcrum around which so much of the Boks’ play has revolved. As a team that often places a considerable onus on playing off 9, he has taken on the responsibility when it comes to marshalling proceedings through pinpoint distribution or via the boot.
However, it’s also his speed off the mark that has seen him establish himself as a pocket-rocket weapon in a new defensive system that relies heavily on strong line speed.
‘The one thing I’ve tried not to shy away from is my defensive role,’ says De Klerk. ‘When I got to Sale, I realised there are quite a few No 9s running with the ball as they want. So I tried to put my opposite number under a lot more pressure to stop the momentum.
‘I started doing that at Sale and we were able to get some valuable turnovers. It’s something [Bok defence coach] Jacques Nienaber was also comfortable for me to do, and for me to make big calls on defence and to look to execute those spot tackles.’
As the season progressed, De Klerk’s importance to the Bok cause became increasingly apparent as he played almost every minute of the Rugby Championship, while Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier got limited opportunities off the bench.
However, Erasmus explained the benefits of backing De Klerk, who looks certain to head to the World Cup as the Boks’ first-choice scrumhalf.
‘We’d loved to have given the other No 9s more game time in the Rugby Championship, but we know the importance of a guy like Faf, and of him building experience. He’s someone we want to keep developing through to the World Cup.’
As it turned out, De Klerk ended up missing three of the Boks’ end-of-year Tests due to club commitments, but it’s a balancing act that received the buy-in of all parties. De Klerk knows his time in England has served to revive his Bok career, and after an unforgettable 2018 season, a key role at the World Cup is well within his sights.
‘I know you need to pitch up for your club and the higher honours will follow,’ he says. ‘We’ll have a few more Tests under the belt before the World Cup, and hopefully we’ll know what we’re capable of by then. It’s an exciting time, for sure.’
– This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.