HE’S perhaps the smallest scrumhalf in the business but in just three Tests for the Springboks the blond pocket-rocket known as Faf de Klerk is fast becoming a No 9 of true distinction.
Yes, JP Pietersen was named Man of the Match in last weekend’s series-winning 19-13 Boks’ defeat of Ireland at Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Bay Stadium, yet one has to agree with Nick Mallett on TV that the award might so easily have gone to De Klerk.
He is playing rugby of the highest quality these days – and he makes it look so easy.
As easy, indeed, as the nonchalant manner in which he makes the rugby ball spin on the ends of his fingers when he has nothing better to do.
De Klerk, while his classy play has nudged him to the head of the scrumhalf queue, reminds one so much of tiny Tommy Gentles or Davey de Villiers – which in itself is praise of the highest order.
What made De Klerk’s elegance all the more praiseworthy last Saturday was the way in which it lifted the performance of his teammates.
Early on, with Ireland looking razorblade sharp as they took a well-merited 10-3 lead, it looked as though the visitors, as in the first Test in Cape Town, were once more on their way to a second victory in the three-match series.
Thankfully, for the Boks, this was not to be as the entire team, urged on by the jaunty No 9, began slowly but surely to claw its way back into the match.
Even then things still looked bleak for the home side as Irish centre, Luke Marshall, in the 15th minute, crashed over for a well-worked try. Surprisingly this seemed to signal an injection of new vitality in the Boks. Willie le Roux, who had been yellow-carded – unfairly many felt for a mid-air collision with Ireland fullback Tiernan O’Halloran – was back on the field by then and the fullback’s return gave new vigour to the Boks’ cause.
At this stage the Boks – only enjoying a fraction above 30 per cent of possession – began to play with renewed vigour.
In the space of eight minutes with an Elton Jantjies’ penalty and then his cross-kick for JP Pietersen’s charging try that smashed through several desperate tackles, the home side were able, with the conversion, to grab a precious 13-10 halftime lead. But nothing was easy. With the Irish dominating possession, it was touch and go to the very end. But as well as the Irish played, the Boks defended as though their very lives depended on it.
Make no mistake, this is an Irish team with plenty of courage and ability. Paddy Jackson at flyhalf was outstanding.
The pack, as a unit, gave as well as they got in the exchanges for possession; and for the most part largely dominated in the tight. But the Springboks gave as good as they got. Apart from scrumhalf De Klerk, those who stood out for the home side included centre Damian de Allende, No 8 Warren Whiteley, flanker Siya Kolisi, who seemed at times to be here, there and everywhere; locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth were rock solid, the former in particular.
Captain Adriaan Strauss hasn’t quite hit the form expected of him. Has coach Allister Coetzee got other plans? Could he be thinking of retaining Strauss as hooker but transferring the captaincy to Whiteley? It mightn’t be a bad idea.