South Africa’s Faf de Klerk may have been the smallest man on the pitch but that did not stop the scrum-half making his presence felt as the Springboks edged out Wales 19-16 in Yokohama on Sunday for a place in next week’s World Cup final against England.
Before kick-off, much had been made of the sheer physical threat posed by South Africa’s forwards but de Klerk, not for the first time this tournament, demonstrated that even modern rugby union can still be a game for all shapes and sizes.
During a dire first half that ended with the Springboks 9-6 ahead after Handre Pollard kicked three penalties to two from Dan Biggar, de Klerk provided a few moments of wit and invention.
The 28-year-old, who credits his time with English Premiership side Sale for sharpening his game, was a buzzing figure in both attack and defence. He caught Wales napping with a blindside break off a scrum before kicking into open space and chasing up his own punt.
He then made light of a considerable size difference to tap-tackle George North as the powerhouse Wales wing looked to counter-attack.
One of de Klerk’s better box kicks was then just inches away from being regathered by wing Makazole Mapimpi. He insisted he was in no way frustrated at playing what Wales coach Warren Gatland labelled an “effective” if often unspectacular kicking game.
“No not really,” de Klerk told reporters. “We’ve bought in to what we want to do every week. Part of our success is that everybody is on the same page with that. “I’m pretty excited for when I get a good kick up in the air and I can really start chasing because I know it’s a fifty-fifty.”
‘Enjoy getting physical’
De Klerk proved his defensive worth again with another fine tap-tackle on North that snuffed out the threat of a rare Welsh visit to the Springboks’ 22. He also found himself fronting up to the towering Jake Ball, with de Klerk grinning broadly as the towering Wales lock grabbed his collar.
“We are great friends mate, it was just a nice moment between us. No, I’m just joking,” de Klerk said. “I do enjoy getting physical. It’s part of the game and you need to be up for it, especially against a team like Wales. So if I can, the smallest guy on the pitch, maybe add a bit of that, it just gives a bit of motivation to the rest (of the team). I need to be up for it as well.”
De Klerk marshalled the backline effectively, linking well with fly-half Pollard, in the build-up to centre Damian de Allende’s converted try that saw the Springboks into a 16-9 lead in the 57th minute. At the other end of the pitch, he was on hand to cover a Rhys Patchell kick into the in-goal area as Wales pressed for a try.
And with just a couple of minutes left to play, de Klerk kept his composure superbly to produce a chip behind the defence that bounced into touch to set up a line-out deep into Wales’ 22 that helped the Springboks close out the game.
“Amazing, I don’t think I’ve any words to describe it,” said de Klerk of knowing he was now a World Cup finalist. “It’s a bit surreal being out there and getting the win. But we know there’s one final goal that we need to reach, so on to the next one.”