The South Africa scrum-half reflects on the highs and lows of his career with RW’s Tom English
Faf de Klerk on Lions, Sharks and Springboks
The homecoming was an odyssey that will never leave him, a five-day trip atop a victory bus moving slowly through the joyous human traffic of Pretoria, Johannesburg and Soweto one day, then Durban the next, then onwards to East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. After success in Japan, the world champions were back with their own people and for a week, at least, everything in South Africa was happy and hopeful.
The things that Faf de Klerk saw in those moments warmed his heart. Young fans and old, men and women, black and white. He knew in his soul that what his team achieved at the Rugby World Cup wasn’t going to cure all of his nation’s ills, no more than Francois Pienaar’s pioneers did almost a quarter of a century earlier, but watching the craziness he allowed himself to think.
“If only 1% of that feel-good could be retained then it would make a difference,” says the scrum-half, one of the leading players in the world and the heartbeat of the Boks as they prepare for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions 2021.
“If just a few of the kids who were experiencing the kind of tough upbringings that our captain Siya (Kolisi) experienced were inspired by it then we’ll have done our job.
“We didn’t know that any of these scenes were going to happen. We knew it meant a lot to people back home but we didn’t expect that. It was phenomenal to see what it meant to all ages and all races. It was insane. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how crazy that trip was going to be.
“Some of our players had tough childhoods in tough areas that are not well known and we went through some of those areas and saw how bad it really is. There was a lot of love for the Springboks.
“You just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if this inspired another Siya, another Makazole Mapimpi, another Lukhanyo Am, another Bongi Mbonambi. Impacting on a kid’s life would be the greatest thing.”
All of that unfolded in the autumn of 2019. The Springboks haven’t played since. The next time we’ll see them in a white-heat battle will be when they face Warren Gatland’s Lions in the summer, a trek that everybody, de Klerk included, feared was never going to happen.
“The talk of having it in the UK didn’t excite me,” he says. “The talk of having it in Australia seemed wrong. Having it in South Africa is brilliant. Unless we have fans it will be weird, but at least it will be in South Africa. That’s important.”
The Sale man has no recollection of the 1997 tour in his homeland – he was only five after all – and you couldn’t say that his memory of the 2009 trip was encyclopaedic either. He freely admits he didn’t really get the magnitude of a Lions trip to his country back then. He does now. Living in this part of the world for the last four years has educated him to the historical sweep of what the Lions are.
“People ask, where would it rank if the Springboks were to beat the Lions. The answer is I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine anything being better than winning the World Cup, but you never know until you experience it – and that’s a big if.
“What I’d say is that I feel very lucky to be playing pretty well in a Lions window. The tour only comes around every 12 years, so you need to have good fortune to be around at the right time to even get an opportunity to play against them.
“It’s going to be an even bigger deal for us this time around because it’s been so long since the boys played together. November 2019 is a long time ago. It’s very, very strange.
“We all stay in touch on WhatsApp and the rest of it. We’re very close and we’re all checking on each other, making sure we’re all right, but we’re keen to meet up as a squad. There’s a lot of excitement about going back home and playing, hopefully, in front of our people. We had that incredible homecoming after the World Cup but we want to play.”
Gatland and his Lions coaches will need no telling about de Klerk’s brilliance, his ability to make huge plays either side of the ball, his capacity to dictate tempo, his dynamism and intelligence in attack, his fearlessness in defence.
De Klerk might be tiny but his aggression is enormous. Scan the web and you’ll find him squaring up to lock forwards twice his size. You ask him does he sometimes forget what size he is and he laughs. He’s a terrier with the menace of a Rottweiler and the speed of a greyhound.
You only have to mention the name of Rassie Erasmus and the eulogies come thick and fast. Erasmus took a failing Boks and turned them into the world champions, he took an unwanted de Klerk, in exile at Sale and without a cap in two years, and turned him into the joyous player he looked in his youth in South Africa.
“Rassie is ridiculously clever,” he says of the head coach turned SARU director of rugby. “Sometimes good things happen and, as players, we think it’s a coincidence but it’s probably been planned six months in advance by Rassie. He just has a sense of things, you know?”
Erasmus was previously in charge of Munster where one of his players described the coach’s ability to anticipate things as almost supernatural. “Rassie’s been in this world before,” said the Munsterman.
De Klerk concurs, saying: “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it. That’s a really good way of putting it. I mean, he told us before the World Cup that we’d be playing Japan in the quarter-final. Nobody thought that at the time. I don’t know what it is. Maybe he’s a time-traveller or something. He can see into our heads. He knows all our traits, all our triggers, our moods.
“He’s moved upstairs now and Jacques (Nienaber, his long-time friend and coaching partner) is head coach but they’ll continue to work really closely. I can’t see much changing.
“They’re best mates. They’re not scared to challenge each other and they’re incredibly honest. As a player, you’re not sitting there getting false messages from them. You’re not getting criticised for the sake of it and you’re not getting smoke blown up your arse. You’re getting total honesty all the time. Players love that.
“And Felix (Jones, the former Munster player and coach and since pre-World Cup a member of the Springbok coaching ticket) is very much part of that. Coach Rassie came to us before the World Cup and said listen, ‘We’re thinking of bringing in Felix Jones from Ireland’ and we were sitting there thinking, ‘Well, we’ve never met this guy…’ but from day one he started making a massive impact.
“He was supposed to give us information on the northern hemisphere teams and players but he took it beyond that. He’s added so much value. Everybody loves him. There’s a lot of people involved in this, a lot of people you might not hear a lot about sometimes.”
His captain, Siya Kolisi, is one we’ve heard much about. De Klerk uses the word “special” repeatedly, remembering the day Erasmus told the squad that Kolisi was going to captain the team for the three-Test series against England back in June 2018.
The boys were delighted for him. They applauded the news in the team room and wished him well. Because he’d been such a big presence for so long they didn’t think of the historical significance of the decision to make him captain. To them, he was just Siya, an exceptional player and a natural choice to be leader.
“When Rassie told us, we were like, ‘That’s cool, congrats Siya’. But when the news broke everything went crazy. I certainly didn’t see that reaction coming. I’m not sure any of the boys did. ‘The first black Springbok captain!’ Yeah, fair enough. But the global media went nuts.
“It was insane. Everybody wanted a piece of him. Everybody wanted his life story. He handled it brilliantly then and now. The work he’s doing for communities back home is fantastic. Yeah, a special person.”
The most recent act in de Klerk’s Springbok story saw him playing magnificently in the World Cup final against England, but it’s been no bed of roses for him. He was first capped in the summer of 2016, losing on his debut to Ireland in the first match of a three-Test series before winning the rematch to set up the decider in Port Elizabeth a week later.
The Boks held a 19-13 lead with minutes left to play. The tourists had them under the cosh. De Klerk ended an ominous 21-phase move with a critical intercept that checked Ireland’s momentum. But they came again. In the last play, they had a two-man overlap – Keith Earls and Matt Healy against de Klerk.
The Springbok scrum-half gambled and won. He charged out of the defensive line in a blur of movement, took man and ball and forced Earls to cough it up. Game over. De Klerk had spared the Boks their first-ever series defeat by the Irish.
The future looked good. In an era after Fourie du Preez – a World Cup winner in 2007 – de Klerk looked like the man to take the mantle. What happened next changed the course of his career. The Boks, under the unimpressive leadership of Allister Coetzee, started to lose – a lot. In 2016, they lost to Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, New Zealand again, England, Wales and Italy. Yes, Italy.
After 11 Tests, de Klerk had won three and lost eight and, suddenly, he was deemed a problem. Coetzee blamed part of the downfall on his supposedly errant kicking. He froze him out. Between 2016 and 2018, until Erasmus arrived, the Springbok nines were Rudy Paige, Francois Hougaard, Ross Cronje and, for the blink of an eye, Louis Schreuder. By then, de Klerk had emigrated to England and a new life with Sale Sharks, a club that helped rebuild him.
“In a way I’m glad that it worked out that way,” says de Klerk. “I’m glad that I had to fight to get where I am. People criticised me for my size, then people criticised my kicking, then I got dropped by the Springboks. I didn’t get a free ride. I’ve had the lowest of the lows and then the highest of the highs and you appreciate the highs more when you have had the lows. It wasn’t an easy road for me but I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”
Does he remember the ones who wrote him off? “There are a few, but I’ve gone beyond using it as motivation now. When I see them from time to time it’s sorta nice. They will be all friendly but I know they know they got it wrong with me.
“I’m just proud that I could prove them wrong. I don’t believe that you should hold grudges in life. You should park stuff and focus on the positives.”
Among the positives was the move to Sale that happened on the back of criticism at home. That and the support of family and friends. “I have great parents. I couldn’t have asked for better. Growing up, going through tough times, they were always there, always supporting me, never doubting my ability even when I sometimes thought that I might not make it.
“I haven’t been able to see my family during the coronavirus, so I’ve needed to lean on my friends and in many ways my friends have become my family over the last year or so.”
He’s talking here about the boys at Sale – there’s obviously a sizeable South African contingent at the club – but also players from other clubs. De Klerk has had the virus and has needed the help of mates to get him through some tricky weeks.
“Just because we’re rugby players doesn’t mean we’re immune to this stuff. Sometimes we can really struggle being away from friends and family back home. We’re normal people and we sometimes get a lot of negativity shone on us in terms of media or social media.
“If a guy is already on a low and is then getting battered on the social media front, it could become really tough. I’ve always tried to be positive. There’s too much negativity around. Be positive and do as much as you can to stay in touch with the people that you love. That’s my motto.”
It’s working. As he talks you can hear his love of the game and his excitement about what may lay ahead in the summer against the Lions. That effervescence is a big part of who he is. “I do get emotional but I learnt early on in my career that you need to appreciate these moments in rugby, because if you get caught up in it then it’s over before you know it and you can’t remember anything.
“It’s important for me to enjoy it. Enjoy the small battles that you have won. Don’t be so focused that you psych yourself out of it completely. The ball spinning on my finger was something I started doing years ago when I thought I was too psyched or too angry.
“I do it as a way of telling myself to relax a bit, just get back to task and stop thinking about stuff that went wrong. Just calm myself down. It’s a little mechanism.”
We may see him spinning the ball on his fingertip during the Test series in the summer. We may also see his genius. At 29, he still believes his best stuff is ahead of him. “Once you believe you’ve reached your peak you should probably start thinking of quitting. I don’t think I’m even close to reaching my full potential yet. I’ve still a lot to do.”
Doing it successfully against the British & Irish Lions will add another layer to the legacy.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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