T.There are many big issues here to discuss with Faf de Klerk, but first things first. How excited is South Africa’s tiny blonde bombshell about the return of hair salons? “It was a nightmare,” he replies, exhaling slowly. “I’m so excited to see them open again. I’ve pretty much always had long hair, but it’s too long now. I’ve tried all sorts of attempts – captivating it, Alice Bands – but it was annoying. I am very excited. “
It is easy to understand that in every way Faf is impatient to rethink its roots. South Africa won the Rugby World Cup 17 months ago, and the Springboks have not played a single test since then. The 29-year-old last saw his parents at home a year ago and has spent a wintry lock living alone in Manchester. Even his typically lively nature – “It was pretty hard” – was put to the test.
But finally there are rays of light. On the horizon is the British & Irish Lions Tour, which is expected to take place in South Africa in July and August, and the world’s most famous Scrum half can’t wait. “At the moment things are much more open there than here, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen. It is all up to the government of the SA. “Fans or no fans who Boks really want to show that their 2019 triumph was no coincidence. “We want to show that we deserve it, that it wasn’t just the luck of the draw.”
In the meantime, his club, Sale Sharks, wants to prove a point. He’s kicking off the Champions Cup trip to West Wales this weekend to face the Scarlet. Win and take part in the last eight of the most important European club competitions for the second time in the club’s history. Alex Sanderson, the Sharks rugby director, puts it bluntly: “Sale has always been the underdog. If we win, it’s because someone else played badly. I think we all get a little sick and tired of it. “
Last season’s disappointments – when the Sharks were forced out of the Premiership playoffs because of a Covid-19 outbreak – also fueled the fires in the north, and De Klerk, although hailing from Nelspruit rather than Northenden, is just as motivated as every body else. “I definitely feel that way. Over the past three seasons we’ve been promoted gradually, but we want to be a dominant force. We want to break away from that whole “Sale are just a shoddy northern team playing rough rugby” mood. We want to take that label off our shoulders and be one of the great teams in the Premiership. “
Not that the dagger-sharp De Klerk needs a second invitation to harass himself. Perceptions can be misleading, however: a lot of careful homework becomes rugby’s greatest stimulus on the field. “I definitely look at the nine opponents and see if there are any qualities I can use to put him under pressure. For example, suppose a nine tends to run away from the base. If he changes direction, maybe I can be in his eye line or get in his way. When attacking, I will check whether the flankers are away from the base or whether there is room in the backfield. I am basically trying to figure out every advantage that I can gain. “
Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe at the Webb Ellis Cup 2019. Photo: Matthew Childs / Reuters
And if none of this works, you might find yourself having a little chat. “Gloucester had a young nine who tried to tell me something and then two balls made direct contact. That was a great opportunity just to say, “Yah, you wanted to tell me something and now see what happened!” Some people like to chat, but others may be affected. I try to play on it when I can. “Which opponent does he prefer to play against? “A lot of nines prefer to be in the bigger guys because they know there is nothing they can do. But I love playing against Danny Care because he’s a threat. He’s always a challenging guy to play against. “
Gareth Davies, the Scarlets and Wales scrum half should consider himself forewarned. De Klerk may have won a world championship – and stripped down to his panties to speak to Prince Harry afterwards – but he remains hungry for more. “You can’t just win a World Cup and then play rugby like you don’t know how to do it.” Although he is only 5 feet 71/2 inches, he doesn’t mind – his mother Corrie describes him as “like a little Jack Russell but with a lion’s heart” – and he thinks his four years in England have him further improved. “It definitely made me a better player. When I started here, I wasn’t in my role to control the game or be a leader. That definitely developed my game a lot. As you try to improve, you will likely always grow. “
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At Sale they also know exactly how to make their South Africans feel like part of the family. The most recent light-hearted cadre initiative was a series of Pub Olympics skill competitions to prepare for the reopening of beer gardens in England on April 12th. The winners have the right to “piss for free” at a location of their choice. Despite Tom Curry’s controversial return from England – “He has to win something to get him to join the team that were at the top” – De Klerk’s team is still on the hunt, despite a close one alongside his neighbor and good friend Josh Defeat on the dartboard gives Beaumont nothing to help their collective cause.
Heaven forbids his famous bleached hair – “I’m afraid I might lose some of my strength if I can” – from falling into his eyes at the wrong moment, but the more immediate challenge is getting the scarlet to the right size bring. The sale may be lucky to be involved after two early pool losses, but a quarter-final against Gloucester or La Rochelle is only 80 minutes away.
“We are finally able to compete and that is the exciting thing,” says De Klerk. “I think it will be very close to the quality of the friendly matches with the kind of players both teams have now.” Every time he’s involved in a big game, it’s rarely worth betting against the smallest man on the field.