Chris Cloete’s inclusion in the South Africa A squad was just reward for an outstanding Super Rugby season, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Just three short years ago, Chris Cloete was plying his trade in the unlikeliest of settings: Sri Lanka. The year before, he had been on the verge of calling time on his fledgling rugby career after suffering a serious bout of glandular fever. Fast forward to the present and Cloete’s remarkable rise to prominence has seen him emerge as one of South Africa’s leading players in Super Rugby this season, while earning him inclusion in the South Africa A squad for a two-match series against the French Barbarians in June.
To appreciate this progression to national recognition (while bearing in mind that many felt he was fully deserving of a Springbok call-up), it’s important to reflect on the winding route Cloete has taken on his journey to the top. Born in East London, the dynamic flanker appeared destined for a professional rugby career, as he represented Border at U13, U16 and U18 levels, and was included in the 2009 SA Schools team.
In his matric year, Cloete was named the Forward of the Tournament at the annual Kearsney Rugby Festival in KwaZulu-Natal, which saw him receive the opportunity to join the Sharks Academy after school.
Despite some promising performances at junior level, Cloete’s contract at the Sharks wasn’t renewed after two years, which prompted a move to Western Province, where he featured prominently in their 2013 Vodacom Cup campaign.
However, Cloete’s career was sidetracked when he contracted glandular fever, with the viral infection leading to fatigue and considerable weight loss, which left the youngster with some serious doubts.
‘I felt as if I was playing good rugby at the time and was enjoying working with [WP coach] John Dobson, but when I contracted glandular fever, I thought that might be it for my rugby career,’ he says.
‘I lost 10kg and it was really tough at times. It made me very weak and I wasn’t able to exercise for about six months; that was especially challenging, because my whole life has been about playing sport.’
Once Cloete had finally recovered fully from the illness, he questioned whether to accept an offer to join the Port Elizabeth-based university side NMMU Madibaz.
It proved to be an important decision, as Cloete resolved to give rugby another bash. He played in all eight of the Madibaz’s matches during the 2014 Varsity Cup and emerged as the top try-scorer.
After that campaign, a surprise offer came for Cloete to take up a stint playing for Sri Lankan club side Kandy in the Clifford Cup.
‘Strangely enough, that’s where I got back into my rugby,’ he says. ‘If I hadn’t gone there, I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am now. My passion for the game was reignited and it gave me a whole new outlook on what we have going for us in South African rugby. The quality of the rugby wasn’t too bad, and there were actually a few foreigners who also played over there.’
After helping Kandy to win the competition in a two-leg final, Cloete returned to South Africa to undergo an operation before heading back to Sri Lanka. As fate would have it, he bumped into Dobson after watching a game at Newlands, and he received an invitation to train with the Western Province squad before their 2015 Currie Cup campaign.
Again, it seemed as if the robust loose forward may have finally found a long-term rugby ‘home’ after earning inclusion in the WP squad and going on to feature in eight games as they finished as runners-up.
But with no further offer forthcoming, Cloete signed a contract to join the Nelspruit-based Pumas for 2016. At the time, the Kings were on the lookout for capable players as they hurriedly sought to put a squad together for their return to Super Rugby. And so, when Cloete received the call to return to his home province, he didn’t have to think twice.
‘It was an opportunity to gain some game time and to receive another chance that I may not have otherwise had,’ he says. ‘It was definitely one of the best moves I could have made for my career. The team culture and environment have been really good at the Kings since I’ve been there, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed being a part of. There is a real brotherhood in the squad, and everyone looks out for each other.’
Despite the struggles endured by the Kings on their return to Super Rugby last year (they won just two games and conceded a whopping 684 points), Cloete emerged as one of the few bright lights. He combined with fellow flanker CJ Velleman to great effect, with the dynamic duo wreaking plenty of havoc at the breakdown. However, Cloete suffered further misfortune when he sustained a serious knee injury in the dying minutes of a game against the Blues in early May that ruled him out of action for nine months.
While he recovered, the Kings got stuck into pre-season training under the guidance of coach Deon Davids. He advocated a game plan based on high-intensity attack and complemented by committed defence.
In particular, the Kings sought to target turnover ball, with a specialist fetcher having a key role to play: cue the return of Cloete in early-March.
Over the next 11 rounds of Super Rugby, the 26-year-old completed 686 minutes of game time, while making 169m on attack, 52 carries and beating 14 defenders. But it’s without the ball in hand that Cloete came into his own, with the robust flanker boasting an 83.5% tackle success rate (as it stood after round 15), while ranking second for turnovers won (15).
‘I’ve learned over the years that I can’t try to compete at every ruck,’ Cloete explains. ‘I’ve played flank since I was a youngster, and I’ve never been that typical big ball-carrier, so for me it’s just been about playing to my strengths. If I decide to contest at a ruck, then I need to either slow the ball down, make a turnover or win a penalty. It’s about being accurate, watching your discipline and knowing when to have a go.’
And although Cloete is hardly the biggest flanker around at 1.76m and 100kg, his raw strength has seen him punch above his weight at the contact points, while his low centre of gravity has made him a menace at the breakdowns and on defence.
‘Sometimes there are coaches who are more inclined to back a bigger guy, or don’t believe in fetchers,’ he reflects. ‘But I think the fetching role is coming back, and we’ve seen Australian and New Zealand sides backing a fetcher, because turnover ball can be the most dangerous ball from which to attack.’
And while Cloete can count himself unlucky to have missed out on Bok selection for June, he remains philosophical about the subject.
‘I didn’t make a Bok call-up something to concentrate on this year, because I was coming back from injury [at the beginning of the season], so I just wanted to focus on performing week in and week out for the Kings. Things happen for a reason, and although it would obviously be an absolute privilege to play for the Boks one day, I wouldn’t change anything about how I’ve got to this point, because it’s taught me a lot and has made me who I am today.
‘When I watched the 1995 World Cup, I said then that I wanted to be like [former Bok captain and flanker] Francois Pienaar, so it’s always been a dream to play for the Boks. But all I can do is just keep aiming to perform consistently every time I take to the field.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine