On a miserable night in Wellington, Faf de Klerk learned his most valuable lesson as a rugby player. He sat shivering on the side of Westpac Stadium, wrapped up in his oversized jacket as the clock ticked down on the 2016 Super Rugby final.
His Lions team had arrived with a spring in their step as the sun beamed down on the southern tip of New Zealand’s north island. They had scythed a path of dazzling destruction across the campaign, playing a brand of running rugby that smashed the South African stereotype of stoic play.
De Klerk was an integral figure throughout. At scrumhalf, his frenetic energy – amplified by his bouncing blonde mop – complemented Elton Jantjies’ creativity from 10. With electric runners outside them, and aided by a clinical pack, the Lions became the first team from the Republic to play in a final since the Sharks in 2012.
“We were all having so much fun together on the field,” De Klerk told New Frame before joining up with the Springboks in Japan for the Rugby World Cup. “We encouraged each other to try interesting things. There was no fear. We knew we could beat anyone.”
Two weeks prior, the Lions scored five tries as they hammered the Crusaders 42-25 in the quarterfinals. A week after that, they again crossed the whitewash five times to dispatch the reigning champions the Highlanders 42-30. Both victories were secured under blue skies on the hard turf of Ellis Park in front of their partisan home fans.
That seemed a distant memory in sideways rain. De Klerk had been yanked off the field on 66 minutes after an abject display by his lofty standards, though he could hardly be blamed for the one-sided finale.
‘We got the tactics wrong’
Beauden Barrett had produced a masterclass with the boot and kept the men in red and white camped in their own half, unable to break the territorial embargo imposed on them. The effervescent rugby that the Lions had made their trademark was rendered impossible. They had prepared for a gun fight but had been met with a rolling barrage of the most merciless artillery.
“We got our tactics wrong,” De Klerk said of the final that ended in a 20-3 defeat. “I remember Elton sent the ball straight out of touch with his first kick and I thought, ‘This might not go well’. It was just one of those days but I definitely learned a lesson that stayed with me.”
That lesson was simple: sometimes you have to curb your natural instincts and adapt to the conditions around you. It sounds simple because it is. The trouble is, it is a lot harder adapting one’s game than realising that you need to. Like turning an oil tanker away from an iceberg, sometimes change comes too slow.
De Klerk and his Lions swallowed their pride and limped home. They continued to dazzle and reached another Super Rugby final the following year, running into the indomitable Crusaders who would win their first of three consecutive titles. But something wasn’t right throughout 2017. De Klerk, once unbridled and clear in thought and action, was suddenly confounded with self-doubt.
“I started to second-guess my attacking style of play,” he confessed. “Did I have other strings to my bow? I worked hard at slowing things down, at box kicks and at controlling the game. But the way the Lions played, I would only get to use those skills once every 10th game. Then when I did, people criticised me for not being clinical. They weren’t wrong, but it wasn’t easy to carry that around.”
He fell out of favour with coach Johan Ackermann who preferred the comparatively cooler head of Ross Cronje. Mid-way through the season in May, a month after Ackermann announced his end of season departure to coach Gloucester in the English Premiership, news broke that De Klerk would also head north to join the Sale Sharks.
“I wasn’t getting the game time I thought I deserved and Sale were looking at me,” De Klerk explains, reiterating that it was the Lancashire club that first approached him. “I always wanted to play in England and it was an opportunity I couldn’t let slip. There was no hard feelings. Ross earned his spot with excellent performances and he was brilliant that season. I had done all I could for the club but it was time to move on.”
De Klerk is a religious man. He explained the insecurities and apprehensions that began to cloud his mind would dissipate through the meditative power of prayer. “It helps me find clarity,” he said. “It calms me down and makes me confident that things will work out.”
He arrived in the frigid north of England with a reputation that he needed to back up. But the lessons of Wellington hung over him. He was determined not to make the same mistakes again.
He worked tirelessly at his foundations. Solid base from which to pass, patience in choosing the right runner, box kicks, catching high balls in swirling winds, more box kicks, more patience; rinse and repeat until a side of De Klerk revealed itself, not just to onlookers wondering if he had more to his game than the helter-skelter dynamism that made him a fan-favourite in Johannesburg, but to himself too.
“The more I played that way, the better I got at it,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised. I back myself. But I’m proud that I put in the work and adapted. It required maturity both on and off the field.”
Life in a multinational environment
His acclimatisation was made easier by the South Africans with whom he shared a dressing room. Jono Ross was a recent acquisition from Stade Francais and Josh Strauss (already a qualified Scotsman) joined from Glasgow Warriors.
Over the course of the last two years De Klerk would be joined by Rohan Janse van Rensburg and the Du Preez brothers, Robert and Jean-Luc. Akker “The Angry Warthog” van der Merwe is set to make his Sale debut when the season kicks off and Lood de Jager will link up with the rest once his duties in Japan have concluded.
“Being able to speak my mother tongue in practice and at braais with guys who understand South African humour, I can’t explain how amazing [that] is,” De Klerk said. “Apart from the weather, living in Manchester and playing for Sale has been a dream.”
It’s not just the South Africans that have made this chapter such an enjoyable one for De Klerk. At training sessions he is toiling away with men from Russia, New Zealand, Scotland, Samoa, Wales, England and the United States.
“I’d never experienced such a multinational environment,” he said. “Living and playing only in South Africa you can think that there is not much of a rugby world outside of Super Rugby and Tests against the big nations. My views have changed and as a result my game has changed. Every nation has their own rugby philosophy.”
Springboks vs Japan Part II
Now, more worldly, more mature, more secure, De Klerk is ready to play a pivotal role in South Africa’s quest to regain the Webb Ellis Cup. He is full of praise for this Springbok ensemble that will take on Japan in the quarterfinals of the World Cup on Sunday 20 October in Tokyo. It will be an emotional affair after Japan stunned the Springboks in the last World Cup, and with the Brave Blossoms fuelled by a desire to bring joy to a country hit by Typhoon Hagibis’ death toll of more than 40.
He said that Rassie Erasmus is “the most detail-oriented and switched-on coach” he’s worked with. As for his captain Siya Kolisi: “Not many people in the world could have handled the attention and pressure he’s received,” De Klerk said. “To lead this team with his composure, and to put in world class performances while doing so, that speaks volumes.”
So has De Klerk lost any of his zeal? Has his newfound maturity honed on icy fields a world away from his native Nelspruit robbed him of his natural game?
“Not a chance! I’ll always be that barefooted kid running around, pretending to be Brent Russell or Breyton Paulse. I’ll always have that desire to put people in space and sneak through gaps. I just choose my moments better now and make better decisions.”