Faf de Klerk’s Super Rugby performances have put him in line for higher honours, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Faf de Klerk has come a long way in just two seasons. A relative unknown in a group of unfancied players, De Klerk and the Lions were the outcasts of South African rugby. What they have achieved together in such a short space of time is quite remarkable. But speaking to coach Johan Ackermann and a number of his players, it’s clear they feel there is still some way to go. The burning desire to prove themselves worthy has united this group of rag-tag rugby players and they’re starting to get the recognition they deserve.
De Klerk is near the top of that list. The diminutive scrumhalf was one of five Lions players recently called into Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok training squad. De Klerk is well aware that he faces a tough task to work his way into the Springbok set-up before this year’s World Cup. Fourie du Preez remains the incumbent, while Ruan Pienaar will likely travel to England as his understudy. Looking locally, Cobus Reinach established himself as a possible third choice with a string of impressive performances on the 2014 end-of-year tour, while the Bulls duo of Francois Hougaard and Rudy Paige cannot be discounted.
Meyer is unlikely to look too far from the core group that has done the job for him so far. However, the 23-year-old’s form is hard to ignore. De Klerk was brilliant for the Lions in Super Rugby, where his crisp service and partnership with Elton Jantjies helped transform the team’s attack.
‘It’s been a massive boost to my confidence knowing I’m close and if I work a little bit harder, I’ll probably get a chance,’ says De Klerk. ‘Heyneke told me he is looking for someone who can speed up the game a bit and make the plays faster. He wants a good passer and someone with speed.
‘The way I play earned me an invitation to the camp, so they [the Bok selectors] like what they saw. If I keep on playing the way I have, eventually I will get my shot. But you want to be there when the World Cup squad gets named, not just at the camp.’
De Klerk heard of his inclusion in the Bok training squad after the Lions’ comeback victory over the Highlanders at Ellis Park. It was a match that illustrated how important he has become to the Lions’ fortunes. Trailing 20-3 at half-time, the introduction of De Klerk and Jantjies transformed the Lions’ static attack, lifted the tempo and eventually resulted in a 28-23 victory against one of the title contenders. Having started the season as second choice behind Ross Cronjé and Marnitz Boshoff, the two struck up a perfect partnership, which dictated the Lions’ style of play.
‘We are starting to understand each other really well after playing so much together, which is very good for me. Both players [Jantjies and Boshoff] have slightly different running lines so I have to alter my pass a bit. Elton plays either very deep or quite flat, so it’s taken some time to get to know what he’s going to do. He has certainly helped to give the team a bit of a spark this year.’
Jantjies has benefited greatly from De Klerk’s speed of service this season. It is an aspect of the game the scrumhalf prides himself on and gives him an advantage over his rivals.
‘Scrumhalves nowadays seem to take one or two steps before making their decision. You don’t have that luxury against the overseas sides that press hard off the line on defence. Passing the ball straight from the base allows the receiver a bit more time to make a decision. That’s one thing [assistant] coach Swys [de Bruin] wants us to do – to know what you want to do before you arrive, and get the ball out quickly.
‘If I spot a gap, I need to back myself and take it. I’ll never try to force the play, it’s about waiting for your moment and making the most of it when it arrives. I’ve had the coaches’ backing to play my own game, to play each situation as I see it, and that has helped develop my decision-making skills.’
The Lions have won widespread admiration for their approach under Ackermann. They have looked to keep ball-in-hand where possible, with tactical kicking often taking a backseat. Speaking to SA Rugby magazine last year, De Klerk admitted it was an area of the game where he needed improvement. He has been working hard to develop those skills.
‘I’m happy with my kicking at the moment, but it’s a part of my game I can always improve. I know the Boks depend a lot on a No 9 who can kick well so I just have to keep working hard to get it spot on,’ he says. ‘I want to become the scrumhalf with the best basics in South Africa. Kicking and passing must be the No 1 priority. Once you’ve got those perfected, the rest will come.’
DE KLERK ON …
HIS SCRUMHALF HERO
‘George Gregan [left] was one scrumhalf I admired a lot when I was growing up. I loved his back passes and blind passes, but also how well he did the basics and the accuracy of his passes. So I’ve modelled my game a bit on his, but I’ve added my own X factor.’
HIS FUTURE AT THE LIONS
‘I love playing here; the set-up is great. My contract is up with the Pumas at the end of the season but there haven’t been any discussions yet. Hopefully I will be part of the Super Rugby group again next year.’
‘It’s never been a problem for me. I’ve always tried to play the same way. If you can make your tackles and add something on attack, it doesn’t matter what size you are.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine