Nippy Lions scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is set to earn his first Springbok cap at Newlands today against Ireland after he was handed a start by coach Allister Coetzee. And the subject of his (lack of) size is never far from discussion. Standing just 1.7m in his socks, Francois de Klerk started his rugby at Waterkloof high school in Pretoria, but after being ignored by the Bulls, he ventured to the Pumas, before singing with the Lions, where he has hit the rugby headlines big time.
“I have never doubted my size – or should I rather say the lack of it. It comes way back from school,” said De Klerk, who was recently described by Lions team-mate and fullback Andries Coetzee as one of the big pranksters in their side.
“But the size thing, it’s part of me, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been getting used to it all my life by applying a motto of just making the best of it,” said De Klerk. Born 24 years ago in Nelspruit, De Klerk was described by Coetzee as a “bundle of energy who he has to rein in”, but De Klerk has never given up on his dream to become a Bok. “It’s always been a dream. I definitely wanted to be where I am now. It would be a great honour and privilege.
“I just always told myself to continue playing well and hopefully the chance would come.” While De Klerk will probably play with less freedom at national level compared to the dazzling displays for the Lions from the base of the scrum, it will be difficult to contain his natural ability.
“At the Pumas and now the Lions you get a bit of freedom: when you see the opportunity you go for it. The big thing for me is not to be pushed in just one direction. That’s not ideal for any player, so it has helped me to grow,” he said.
As a youngster he had his idols – just like any other player. He used to admire the powerful displays of Joost van der Westhuizen, who is now struggling with motor neuron disease. “As a youngster I looked up to Joost in the way he had played and then maybe (Australian) George Gregan for the way he managed to control a game.
“At the moment I’m quite happy about my kicking game, but I think it can always improve, especially if you want to play international rugby. In the Bok set-up, they depend a lot on their No 9 to kick well, so that’s probably going to be the main thing,” he said.
De Klerk said his decision-making has improved a lot playing Super Rugby for the Lions the last three seasons. “In Super Rugby you need to know when to pass and when to take it up or kick. In the past you think ‘maybe I should not have carried, but rather passed’.
“It’s that kind of decision-making that comes with experience. If you can keep on playing like that, you can only improve your own game.” While the team do their analysis in general on opponents, De Klerk does his homework on his rival for the day.
“I analyse my opponent directly. Often we see they don’t put that much pressure on you at scrum-time, but just help with the defence and try to counter their attack. I need to know where his strengths are and how to counter them.
“Being in the Bok camp last year just encouraged me. The confidence you get from that is simply amazing.” De Klerk said he has learned how to bring a sound balance to his game, although he is generally seen as primarily a running No 9. “I’ve always tried to play by instinct; always liked to swipe. The big thing is not to force stuff,” he said.
“I’ll only go for it when it’s on. I’ll never try to go through guys or create something from nothing. So the thing is to know when to take that chance. And when not.”