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Farrell may come to regret Kleyn call

By Daniel Gallan
Ireland's lock Jean Kleyn takes part in a training session at the Ichihara Suporeka Park in Ichihara on September 18, 2019, ahead of the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Two years ago World Rugby proposed a radical change to the game’s eligibility rules. Recognising that too many developing nations were deprived of some of their top homegrown talent, a recalibration of the laws would allow them to return to the country of their birth.

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The plan was hatched with the Pacific Island nations in mind. For too long Fijians, Samoans and Tongans were lured by unions with deeper pockets only to be left stranded in Test rugby purgatory after winning a handful of caps.

No more. In a stroke these teams have been bolstered by some genuine superstars. Just take a look at the Tongan squad. Would anyone bet against them beating at least one of South Africa, Ireland or Scotland in France later this year now that they’ve got Israel Folau, Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa in the mix?

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Speaking of South Africa, SA Rugby voted against the rule change. And really, who can blame them? The tale of South African-born athletes representing other nations in a range of sports could fill a novel. Many fans of the Boks or Proteas cricket team would consider this a horror story.

Every side in this year’s Six Nations included a player that was either born in South Africa or who honed their skills in the country. Three South African-born players have donned the red of the British & Irish Lions. The All Blacks and Wallabies have similarly benefitted in this way.

But the South Africans were in the minority when World Rugby tallied the votes and the rule was passed last year. And like a crafty loose forward, the Springboks’ brains-trust rolled with the contact and sought an advantage.

They found one in plain site. At over two metres tall and weighing more than 120kg, he’d have been hard to miss. And after helping Munster lift the United Rugby Championship title while being recognised as the club’s player of the season – he started all 24 games he played and missed just two rounds – Jean Kleyn’s inclusion in the Springboks’ recent training squad was a no-brainer.

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Rassie Erasmus has called Kleyn “a monster of a guy” and revealed that he’s been blinking on the radar for “a long time”. But the decision would come down to one important variable – whether or not Andy Farrell offered Kleyn an Ireland recall.

It’s bizarre that he didn’t. It’s not like Farrell has a surplus of world class second rowers falling out the seams and Kleyn offers a point of difference. Even if he’d struggle to dislodge Tadgh Beirne, James Ryan, Ian Henderson or Ryan Baird, his hefty presence in the training group would challenge the Irish tight five to add some grunt to the nous.

There are sound rugby reasons why Kleyn was omitted. As Munster legend Keith Wood recently said, he is a better fit in the South African set-up. He lacks the softer skills of Joe McCarthy or Kieran Treadwell – two locks who instead received the nod and it would take him time to adapt to a game plan that requires every member of the tight five to contribute with cohesive passes and neat wraparounds. And perhaps Farrell is banking on his Leinster core remaining intact. Still, Ireland’s loss is South Africa’s gain.

Though their depth in the second row is the envy of every other Test team, an extra view on the set piece and the tighter channels can only be a good thing. Kleyn’s experience with Munster and Ireland could spark an idea or provide a barely noticeable marginal gain that percolates over the next four months before manifesting into something more tangible at the World Cup.

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The game in Paris between South Africa and Ireland now has an extra narrative thread to pull and tease. Even if Kleyn doesn’t take part in what is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing rivalries in rugby, any hint of disruption at the line-out will conjure images of Kleyn standing in front of a power-point presentation highlighting the way Beirne wiggles his left knee whenever he’s hoisted as a decoy jumper.

There’s a strong case to be made that Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber simply invited Kleyn to the training group for the craic. What are they up to? What does it mean? Does Farrell regret his decision? Does any of this matter? Talking points become relevant the more we breathe life into this and this one will provide plenty of fat to chew on.

This is also a remarkable story for the individual. Kleyn would have grown up dreaming of wearing the Springboks jersey. No South African with his eyes that far away from the ground could resist that fantasy.

“When I was approached, I was overwhelmed by the opportunity to be part of the Springbok squad,” he told the Rapport newspaper. “I couldn’t let the chance pass. This opportunity that my home country is offering me is an honour that I never thought I would get.”

A macro view offers another intriguing subplot. This is not a so-called tier two nation rolling out the red carpet to welcome back a lost son of its soil. We’re talking about the three-times world champions adding a player to the fringe of a department that really doesn’t need him.

What will this mean for the global game? Maybe nothing. Maybe this is just some quirk that provides rugby nerds a chance to show off their knowledge. But maybe it rips open a tear in the sport’s continuum which could yet have far reaching consequences.

Will Test teams begin to resemble clubs whereby players can forge strong links with multiple fanbases? Would that diminish the integrity of international competition? And what would that mean for supporters? Would every player be welcomed back with open arms?

This will depend on what transpires over the next few months. If Tonga causes an upset, and Ireland get bossed at the line-out by the Boks, we might have some answers to these questions.

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8 Comments
J
JB 385 days ago

The weirdest assertion in this article is that the All Blacks have somehow benefited from ex-pat, or South African players. To date there is a single player who genuinely qualifies, Greg Rawlinson..hardly a household name. Yes, Andrew Merhtens was born in South Africa, but his parents were New Zealanders living abroad and he was barely eating solid foods before they moved home. Ethan De Groot? He was born in Australia and moved to NZ when he was 2. Perhaps I’m missing some.

J
Jo 397 days ago

What is it with European rugby writers dream-world fascinations with the absolutely facile notion of ‘homegrown’ Pacific Island talent being lured away by deep pocket nations…..

All the ex AB’s playing for Tonga and Samoa were either born in NZ or arrived as kids with their parents seeking work or ‘fresh’ and raw undeveloped teens.

Their rugby ‘growth’ most certainly was seeded, watered and flourished inside NZ - not in the villages of the undeveloped 3rd world.

G
GrahamVF 399 days ago

Knowing Rassie besides any other factor he knows he's playing with the Irish coaching squad's minds. The questions in this article are exactly the questions going on in the coaching box. But anyway it's about time we got some of our home grown talent back.

D
Declan 399 days ago

A huge mistake by AF real bias against Munster players who performed when required this season.
Irish squad not picked on form.

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Shaylen 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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Jon 11 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Ioane is going to be more than good enough to lock up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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