England and South Africa will go head-to-head this weekend as both countries look to win the Webb Ellis Cup and be crowned world champions in Yokohama. The physicality of both teams will no doubt go a long way in deciding who comes out on top with both countries boasting strong powerful packs. The direction of the game though may come down to one of the smallest figures on the field, in South Africa’s No. 9 Faf De Klerk – who stands at just 1.70m and weighs in at 80kg.
Faf De Klerk has lead South Africa’s charge to the final as his intelligent kicking and general energetic game play has helped his country see off plucky hosts Japan in the quarter-finals and Wales in the semi-finals.
De Klerk’s long blonde locks has lead him to being called the ‘mini Hercules’, as showcased in the semi final win wherein he stood up to the Wales physicality – highlighted when he went face to face with Wales lock Jake Ball who stood an imposing 25cm taller than De Klerk. The Springboks player said, “I do enjoy getting physical, it’s part of the game, and you do need to be up for it, especially against a team like Wales”.
De Klerk’s international journey saw him making his Springboks debut three years ago in 2016 – where he played in a defeat by Ireland in Cape Town. In fact his international career did not start well, as he was involved in losing eight of 11 Tests South Africa played between June and November of 2016. This saw De Klerk lose his place in the national team and also make a significant move away from his homeland, as he left Super Rugby side the Lions to take up an offer in the English Premiership with the Sale Sharks.
(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The regulations at this time stipulated that players that had played less than 30 Tests for the national team and moved abroad would be unable to represent South Africa. This move to England though has proved to be an unlikely springboard back into the colors of the Springboks, as De Klerk’s form for Sale in his first year had him nominated for Premiership Player of the Year in 2018. “The main thing for me when I got to Sale was I got put in a role where I needed to make a difference in the team,” he said.
South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus eventually could not ignore De Klerk’s form, and – 18 months after playing his last Test match – De Klerk was back as he made a try scoring return in a 42-39 win over England in Johannesburg in 2018.
He has now established himself as one of the first names picked for South Africa, but this has not made him immune to criticism – especially from within South Africa. This criticism has centred around his kicking game, which some people believe gives possession away too easily – which was highlighted in South Africa’s win over Wales where they only had 39 per cent of possession and 38 per cent share of territory.
De Klerk and South Africa constantly looked to the box kick and contesting the high ball so as to put pressure on the Welsh, but against the English one gets the feeling South Africa and De Klerk will need to hold the ball a little more and build pressure – not only through kicking but also possession. De Klerk though has declared that South Africa will not look to change their game plan too much against England, stating that “we’ve brought in to what we want to do every week. Part of our success is that everybody is on the same page with that.”
De Klerk certainly does not shirk his responsibility on the field and Sale teammate and winger Chris Ashton – who has 44 caps for England – believes De Klerk is the best No. 9 in the world when he is at his best, saying “when he is on point I struggle to find a better one, you cannot find a defending nine like Faf- he’s smashing people, He’s like a mini-Hercules.”
(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
De Klerk’s dominant character and ability to control the tempo of the South African team will need to be a focus for the English according to former World Cup winner Matt Dawson. “Everything centres around Faf De Klerk,” Dawson stated, “Maro Itoje is going to try and charge down his kicks. If he has a dart around the fringes he has got to be swallowed up, swung around like a rag doll and put back down.”
Faf de Klerk has faced adversity within his international career and has credited his time in England with Sale for sharpening his game to be both an effective presence in both defence and attack. The 28 year old is now on the brink of becoming a World Cup winner, saying that the experience is “amazing, I don’t think I’ve any words to describe it”. But he is aware there is still one giant step to overcome for South Africa to win its third World Cup crown, with he and his team knowing that “there’s one final goal that we need to reach, so on to the next one.”
What is known though is that De Klerk will do all he can to inspire his country against an English team that will go in favourites, as the ‘mini Hercules’ looks to cement his own World Cup legacy.
Tries by Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi have driven England to a more convincing victory over Wales than the 33-30 scoreline suggested, but what the result means for the coronavirus-hit European Six Nations championship remains to be seen.