Lions scrumhalf Faf de Klerk has proved he belongs in Super Rugby, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
When Michael Bondesio suffered a quad strain at the Lions captain’s practice before their Super Rugby opener against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, it opened the door for Francois ‘Faf’ de Klerk. The Pumas scrumhalf had been thrilled just to be drafted into the Lions’ 30-man Super Rugby squad. Now he was in the starting XV and being given a golden opportunity to show he belonged there.
It’s one he took. De Klerk and flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff both had impressive Super Rugby debuts as the Lions beat the Cheetahs 21-20, and were then named joint Men of the Match after the 34-10 thrashing of the Stormers at Ellis Park a week later.
It must have been satisfying for De Klerk to prove he could succeed at Super Rugby level considering the Bulls, who he had represented at the U16 Grant Khomo Week in 2007 and the U18 Academy Week in 2009, had wanted him to play for their U19 team but weren’t prepared to offer him a contract.
De Klerk was born and raised in Nelspruit before enrolling at Hoërskool Waterkloof at the age of 15 (his parents later joined him in Pretoria). While he chose the school because of its cricket set-up, rugby soon became his sport of choice. De Klerk had played scrumhalf for Laerskool Bergland in Nelspruit, but switched between 9 and 10 during his two years in the Waterkloof 1st XV, where he was coached by Jimmy Stonehouse.
‘Faf played both positions because we didn’t have great depth in the squad or a 10 on the bench,’ recalls Stonehouse. ‘He had a good left boot and went on to play flyhalf for the Lions U19 and U21 teams. But at some point you have to specialise and Faf’s size [1.72m and 80kg] saw him settle at scrumhalf, which is his preferred position.’
Having missed out on a Bulls contract, De Klerk was offered a bursary at the University of Johannesburg, where he spent two years. He played for the Lions’ U19 and U21 teams during that time, but they didn’t offer him a contract and he returned to the Bulls. De Klerk hadn’t been with their U21 team for long when he received a call from Stonehouse, now coach at the Pumas.
‘Jimmy wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming to Nelspruit for a trial period, and I said yes,’ says De Klerk, who would spend most of 2012 on the bench, before getting his chance in 2013 when Shaun Venter was loaned out to the Kings for Super Rugby.
De Klerk played a big role for the Pumas team that reached last year’s Vodacom Cup final and then won all their Currie Cup First Division matches. While they narrowly lost their first promotion-relegation game against Griquas in Kimberley, a big win in the return leg in Nelspruit ensured the Pumas would play Premier Division rugby in 2014.
‘I’ve had a good time in Nelspruit and made a lot of great friends,’ says De Klerk. ‘We had an excellent 2013 season, in which we set high standards.’
De Klerk’s contract with the Pumas runs until the end of next year and if he maintains his form, a move to a bigger union seems inevitable.
‘It will be very difficult for the Pumas to keep him,’ admits Stonehouse. ‘He’s earning double his [Pumas] salary playing Super Rugby for the Lions. We know the hawks will come when his contract ends, but perhaps we’ll do well in the Currie Cup Premier Division, get a bigger sponsor and be able to keep him.’
A more likely prospect is that De Klerk will become a permanent employee at Ellis Park.
‘It’s been great playing for the Lions,’ he says. ‘While we operate within our structures, we also have the freedom to express ourselves and play our own game.
‘At the beginning of last year, I couldn’t have imagined making my Super Rugby debut 12 months later. I’ve always wanted to play in this tournament and have enjoyed testing myself against experienced scrumhalves like Will Genia and Piri Weepu. I’ve loved it.’
DE KLERK ON …
NOT BEING SELECTED FOR THE BLUE BULLS U18 CRAVEN WEEK TEAM
‘A lot of guys don’t get picked for Craven Week and then stop playing. But when you get to U19 and U21 levels, Craven Week doesn’t matter. It’s all about how you’re playing now.’
‘I like to speed up the game and outwork the other team. I’m also good at spotting holes around the rucks.’
WHERE HE MUST IMPROVE
‘I want to get better at box-kicking. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do.’
HIS HALFBACK COMBINATION WITH MARNITZ BOSHOFF
‘I love playing with Marnitz and hopefully help to make his job easier.We understand each other well and don’t have to talk much on the field. We’re also great mates off the field and are room-mates when we play away games.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine