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I play to inspire kids who would avoid rugby because of their size, says South African World Cup hero de Klerk

Held up: South Africa’s Faf de Klerk is tackled
Held up: South Africa’s Faf de Klerk is tackled
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Was there ever a more perfect microcosm of the Springboks' traditional strengths than their rolling maul last Sunday against Japan?

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Playing against the host nation who so captivated throughout this tournament, there was little doubt the two-time World Cup winners would be unpopular victors regardless of style.

Little matter then when they relied upon their scrum, their kicking game and, in the most beautifully brutal fashion, their rolling maul.

A line-out on the halfway line isn't usually considered a prime attacking position, requiring a coach to delve into his bag of set-piece moves in the hope of creating a linebreak. Not here, however. South Africa set off driving up the pitch, eventually travelling a full 50m before eventually breaking off only to cross the whitewash.

For all that the move could be seen as archetypal Springbok, the eventual scorer is anything but.

Faf de Klerk stands at 5ft 7in in boots, tipping the scales at under 90kg. In a team of physical beasts, he is the beating heart. For all his sniping and work with ball in hand, it's his scrappiness, for want of a better word, that is among his best qualities.

Just watch his first tackle on opposite number Gareth Davies in tomorrow's semi-final with Wales. It'd be worth having a stopwatch on hand to time how long he tries to pin him to the ground.

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From internet memes depicting him as 1980s superhero He-Man to YouTube compilations of his committed tackling, he's been one of the stars of the tournament, taken to the hearts of the Japanese despite his prominent role in ending their side's World Cup journey.

"It's great," he said of overcoming the stereotype that rugby has become a game for behemoths. "I've had to do that my whole life, and I see guys coming through in our team. Cheslin (Kolbe) has been amazing for us, and for his club in France, where most people say you have to be big. He has played them absolutely alight.

"It gives a lot of young kids, and people who may shy away because of their size, confidence. If you are willing to work hard, you will reach your dreams. That's sometimes that I play for - to inspire younger kids and see what I can do. Hopefully, we can see a few more come through the ranks."

And of his relative internet celebrity in a strange corner of social media?

"The players always say they try to stay away from it, and we do try, but it's impossible not to see most of the stuff that has been put out there," he said.

"Some things are really funny, and I enjoy some of the stuff people come up with.

"There is a nice funny picture where it says I can spin a ball and kick, so it's a spinnekop (spider)."

Should South Africa succeed here in Japan, a lot will be made of the decision to bring foreign-based players back into the fold. When De Klerk signed for Sale in 2017, having made his debut against Ireland the previous year, he did not meet the 30-cap threshold that allowed the likes of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen to continue in the green jersey.

Former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus scrapped the policy however, a decision that allowed him to select the likes of De Klerk, his fellow diminutive star Cheslin Kolbe and, before injury, Ulster's Marcell Coetzee.

De Klerk believes life in Manchester has made him a better player, something that is now clearly of benefit to the national cause.

"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 reflected. "A lot of responsibility came my way in terms of how we want to play, how we want to kick, how we want to play our running game.

"I started kicking for poles a lot more, started doing kick-offs. That all helped me a lot to get to where I am now. I played a lot of rugby, got a lot of starts. The head coach, Steve Diamond, backed me continuously.

"I was playing with a lot less pressure and just enjoying yourself and getting into the groove again. Then, coming back into the South Africa squad with coach Rassie (Erasmus) and coach Stokke (Mzwandile Stick) and everyone we worked with in 2016, it was just a similar thing - the coach backing the players and knowing what they can bring.

"It's then up to us as players to execute whatever they give to us, and we have to perform at the weekend."

That's not something South Africa have done of late against Wales, losing the last four

"Well, looking at the stats, they probably do (have the wood over the Springboks). But we probably have our best team and best structure we've had in a few years," said De Klerk.

"Looking back at 2016, when I last played them, we had a completely different way of playing and attacking, and we didn't really get into what makes them tick and the way they play.

"Now, in just one session, I've got a much broader view of what they bring and what their threats are.

"So, as a team, we are more in tune with how they want to play, and we are getting into stages where we want to find ways to counter the stuff they bring.

"It's going to be a slippery one for us."

For sure, they'll need De Klerk playing well again. In the land of giants, he's proving as big as anyone.

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