The diminutive scrum-half has become a global star behind a powerful Boks pack
Diminutive Faf de Klerk is driving the monstrous Springboks pack
When South Africa patiently ground down Japan in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, television station SuperSport caught an exchange between little scrum-half Faf de Klerk and giant lock Lood de Jager.
With a colossal maul driving the Brave Blossoms back almost 50m, the cameras appeared to show a tired de Jager exchanging looks with the nine, mid march. De Klerk was spotted laughing. Seconds later, the scrum-half was taking a pop off Malcolm Marx and scurrying in for a crucial try.
Explaining things later, de Klerk told the channel: “I looked at Lood and I can see he’s working so hard, he’s so tired, but he kept on telling me to keep it in and I started laughing.” After the score, he punched the ball in the air, elated.
This vignette perhaps encapsulates de Klerk’s World Cup. He has been lambasted in some quarters for the perceived one-dimensional style of an uber-pragmative Springboks outfit. Yet, spend any time on Reddit or social media platforms and you see they are awash with memes of the shock-haired nine. From photoshopped efforts of him playing an electric guitar to wielding a sword as He-man, he is living a double life on the internet.
Clearly South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus is pleased with the role the Sale Sharks half-back performs. The little guy may be challenged at home for persistent box-kicking and often feeding the forwards, but he is a cog in a machine that is working well in Japan so far.
Asked about being a giant bossed around by such a diminutive figure, de Jager said earlier this week of de Klerk: “He directs his forwards very well. He’s decisive with what he wants to do and what he wants for his forwards. You can see how he goes again this weekend and how he directs us again.
“When we get tired sometimes, he’ll come and tell us where to run and how to run. Hopefully he can come and have a good game for us this weekend.”
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When put on the spot about the volume of coverage he gets online – from criticism to meme stardom – the Sale scrum-half had a few thoughts of his own.
“The players always say they try to stay away from it (coverage), and we try,” he said. “But it’s impossible not to see most of the stuff that has been put out there.
“Some things are really funny, and I enjoy some of the stuff people come up with. But also, some guys get a bit personal. It’s not personally just on us or any player – people love the Springboks and are very invested in the team.
“So, if they see something go wrong or don’t agree with it, it’s not because they are negative, but because they are very invested. We know we have great supporting people behind us.
“When we win, they will still be happy we got the job done. We know in the camp what works for us and what doesn’t. We try to listen to the coaching staff and players around us. That’s probably the main thing.
“There is a nice funny picture where it says I can spin a ball and kick, so it’s a spinnekop (spider). That was pretty funny for me to see. So, there is a lot of humour in it, and if you get caught up in that stuff, you are losing focus on what you need to do.”
Publicly and as a group, the Springboks have been very philosophical about criticism. On the day of their captain’s run, half-back partner Handrè Pollard talked about how well he and de Klerk had gelled, but also mentioned the criticism. It’s not far from his mind. But in the same spell, Pollard talked about why the mauling and the kicking and the pragmatism is not something to deviate from – it is what provides the space for electric wingers like Makazole Mapimpi to power through; it’s what can open up wee holes for a wee nine.
De Klerk has also spoken about the impact his move to Sale had on him, describing it as a “blessing in disguise” as he worked back into the Springboks frame quicker than he thought possible. He tweaked his game there too.
Certainly Steve Diamond, director of rugby at Sale, feels the nine has come on. Talking to the Telegraph earlier in the week, he mentioned that he timed some of de Klerk’s box-kicks. He was impressed to find that some of them were in the air for over four and a half seconds, meaning they were perfectly contestable.
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Asked where the scrum-half rates in the global pecking order, Diamond said: “As a conventional nine, Aaron Smith ticks the boxes but when you have giants of these men but he dominates most of them and he is 5ft 7in.
“His personality (means) whatever Faf ends up doing after rugby, he will be really successful. He just walks into a building and illuminates the room with his personality, demeanour and knowledge of what he is doing. You don’t meet many people like Faf. He is a one-off. Gracious in defeat. Does not slap anyone. Always polite. Bans the other lad from talking Afrikaans in the changing room.
“He is a great lad.”
Some fans may want a more expansive style. But help South Africa into another World Cup final and de Klerk’s smiling face will be plastered all over the web.
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