Faf de Klerk started this year exiled from test rugby, but will head into 2019 as one of South Africa’s most important weapons as they bid for Rugby World Cup glory in Japan.
After being recalled from the international wilderness in June, the blond haired dynamo won six of his 10 tests, including a famous victory over New Zealand in Wellington and was included in the five-man shortlist for World Rugby Player of the Year.
After his incredible year, will de Klerk’s New Year wish be a Springbok World Cup win and European Champions Cup qualification for Sale? “Yes, hopefully, I can get both of those things – that would be a great way to follow this year,” said de Klerk, who has a warning for the rest of the World Cup nations: ”The Springboks have only reached 50 per cent of where we need to be. There is immense talent in the squad and we want to be ready for the World Cup.”
The 27-year-old had played 11 tests for the Springboks in 2016 and enjoyed just three wins, leaving him understandably frustrated when head coach Allister Coetzee dumped him and triggered the move to Sale in the English Premiership in 2017. As he did not satisfy the 30 cap rule to be allowed to return to play for the Springboks, there seemed little chance of de Klerk being able to mount a bid for a World Cup place.
Instead of wearing his national colours, de Klerk pulled on the Sale No.9 shirt and was told by Steve Diamond, the club’s director of rugby, to go out and make a name for himself by bossing the rest of the team around the pitch. This brought the best out of de Klerk and when Coetzee was axed and Rassie Erasmus took over the Springbok role, the scrum half’s world suddenly shifted on its axis.
Recalled for a test series triumph over England, de Klerk proceeded to deliver the kind of performances that gave the Springboks much needed impetus and a victory over the All Blacks that was just reward for all of his efforts. “I definitely did not think this year would end up like this,” said de Klerk. “I never dreamt it would be such a magical year and now the aim is to recreate a bit of it next year. I knew I wasn’t eligible for the Springboks when I came over but thankfully they changed that rule. Always in my thoughts was the belief that if I played well for my club there might be a chance they would have another look at me and thankfully it has worked out. Now, hopefully, I will get that opportunity to go to the World Cup.
“It is all about challenging yourself and that is what I did by coming to a new country and joining Sale. It has all been really exciting and if you get comfortable in one place you don’t grow and I believe I have grown as a player. Sale gave me a lot of responsibility and I want to pay tribute to them for allowing me to enjoy every single minute at the club.”
Sale have played a key role on and off the pitch in reviving de Klerk’s test career with Diamond agreeing to release his prized possession for this year’s Rugby Championship rather that ring fencing the player. At test and club level de Klerk is now recognised as a threat that must be nullified and he is rising to the challenge of being just as influential, despite the attention of limpet like opponents. He explained: “I am feeling the pressure quite a lot since coming back to the Premiership. Against Saracens, guys were trying to keep me on the floor and it is something I have to think about and try to find ways around it by being more patient. One thing you need to do in the Premiership is to adapt.
“My attitude is that if guys are focused on me then it will open up holes for team mates.”
De Klerk’s immediate priority is to ensure Sale remain top of their European Challenge Cup pool by beating Bordeaux at home on Saturday and then move up from their current 11th position in the Premiership to earn a Champions Cup place next season. He added: “The Premiership is really competitive and this season it is absolutely crazy. I am banking on us getting some wins to then pull away to create a bit of a gap from the bottom of the league. We are getting key players back from injury and test duty and are becoming stronger every week. We have real threats in our backline.”
Living in football mad Manchester has allowed de Klerk to enjoy a level of anonymity that is impossible in South Africa and while he is enjoying a quieter time, the local weather has been an issue. After being warned Manchester can be very wet and cold, de Klerk was lulled into a false sense of security. “For the first few months the weather wasn’t bad and then the Beast from the East arrived. That was horrendous and so when Robert du Preez said to me the other day the weather isn’t too bad I told him watch out!”.
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