By Brendan Gallagher
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Sale’s Faf De Klerk could well have been the Premiership player of the season and for those not yet convinced by the diminutive scrum-half, last Saturday’s virtuoso performance will surely have alerted you to his special qualities.
The great thing about De Klerk is that he doesn’t Faf around. Rarely if ever will you see a scrum-half so quick and decisive around the back of a ruck, maul or scrum. In, out, pass or kick. Repeat. He operates at a breath-taking pace both physically and mentally and must be an absolute nightmare to play against. The film seems to speed up when he’s in possession.
He breaks at extreme pace, off-loads and passes like a Sevens expert and generally seems to be having the time of his life. During one of the injury stoppages last night, when most of the players were sucking in big ones and trying to get body and soul together, he amused himself by spinning the match ball on his index finger Harlem Globetrotters style. Move over Meadowlark.
De Klerk might be a small guy in the land of giants but his physicality is immense. At one crucial stage during the second half in quick succession he decked Billy Vunipola, smother tackled Chris Robshaw and bounced back up to make a vital hit on Henry Slade as England looked to continue the attack.
A rubber ball of a player he happily takes on the big boys and his running feud with Maro Itoje was a wonderful little sideshow to add to the fun at Ellis Park.
At 24-3 down there is no question in my mind that it was De Klerk more than anybody who kept the Boks spirits up and raised the whole tone, a process which resulted in that cheeky try when first he tempted Itoje to challenge early – a penalty was on the way – but then with the big lock committed and wrong foot he zipped over.
I suspect words were spoken and the two of them enjoyed a ding dong battle until de Klerk went off right at the end having won a convincing points decision.
The man from Netspruit first broke into the South African side in 2016 when to these eyes he looked the real mccoy but South African friends assure me he wasn’t even the best scrum-half at the Lions let alone in South Africa.
There seemed a distrust of his small stature and possibly his out-and-out attacking style at a time when South African rugby was beginning to go into a tailspin. The Boks default setting was always to look for solidity and a more of a textbook nine to operate behind a dominating pack. Except South Africa didn’t have a dominating pack anymore. In their minds perhaps, but not in reality.
Whatever, something didn’t quite gel and De Klerk seemed to get blamed for defeats that were clearly down to a collective failure. He quickly tired of that and last summer came the opportunity to sign for Sale where he became a cult hero almost overnight. What’s he like I asked James O’Connor early in the season.
“Well he’s got small man syndrome,” came the smiling reply.
“What does that mean?”
“Well he’s 5ft 7 and 13 stone dripping wet but he thinks he’s Bakkies Botha, I love him to bits,” came the reply and it’s difficult to better that summing up.
Even after just one season at Sale he has improved as a player. During that first season of Test rugby the one weakness in his armoury seemed a sometimes erratic kicking game. Well, he has rectified that in no time whatsoever and although his first instinct is always to attack he now knows when and how to put foot to ball.
New Boks coach Rassie Erasmus is clearly a fan from way back. Technically, according to SARU policy, only Boks with 30 caps or more who are based overseas can be brought back to play Test rugby and De Klerk only has 12 and is ineligible.
Erasmus, however, invoked the equivalent of the RFU’s ‘special circumstances’ clause to ensure he could play this summer. His pace and tempo, it would appear, is going to be crucial as South Africa look to expand their game.
It was, to the surprise of nobody, that last night was a very good evening for all the European-based players who provided the nous and class at crucial times to get South Africa over the line.
After a slightly dodgy start at Wasps, we all now appreciate the full genius of Willie Le Roux. What a player for the neutral to enjoy but on his return to South Africa he is an improved version of the player who departed.
Two years ago he was still brilliant, but an erratic maverick who had to be catered for by the Boks. Last Saturday, Le Roux was the organiser in chief of a back three featuring two debutant wings. The mentor role suits him and has added a maturity to his play while not distilling his playmaking panache.
And then there was big Duane Vermeulen, a powerhouse No.8 when fully fit who has added the art of the turnover to his repertoire during his time with Toulon in the T14 and the European Cup. A formidable trio who England must somehow find a way of stopping.