Faf de Klerk has likely been at the centre of one or two raucous parties in the wake of the Springboks’ World Cup win, but last weekend there was one more important welcoming party waiting to greet him when he landed back in England. It has been quite a journey for the 28-year-old scrum-half, who was exiled from the national side when he moved to Sale two years ago, but he left Japan early this month as one of the stars of the world game.
From his square-off with Wales’s Jake Ball in the semi-final to that photoshoot in his underwear after winning the World Cup, De Klerk has become one of the unlikely poster boys of South African rugby – a far cry from 2017, when the No 9 left the Golden Lions and took a punt on kick-starting his career in English rugby with the Sharks. “He knew the consequences of moving here in regards to the Springboks, but he was really keen to come, and we liked that,” Steve Diamond, Sale’s director of rugby, explains.
Diamond has become one of De Klerk’s closest confidantes, and the player himself has admitted to his rise being influenced by Sale. “The ruling [in which players with fewer than 30 caps who move overseas become immediately ineligible for the Springboks] ended his international career at the time, but he always had that goal to get back there and we wanted to help him,” Diamond says.
“Rassie Erasmus [South Africa’s coach] knew there was so much talent playing here in Europe that eventually it would be foolhardy to overlook lads like Faf. His form for us has been magnificent.” The scrum-half may well have attracted criticism from Springboks fans for failing to release the ball more, even throughout the recent World Cup, but at Sale he is a bona fide star. That will be underlined by the reception he gets when he returns to the club’s squad for the European Cup visit of La Rochelle on Sunday.
“Our sponsors are rubbing their hands together for when he comes back,” Diamond adds. “Twelve million people watched the final on TV in England; how many of those live in the north-west and didn’t know someone as charismatic as Faf was playing down the road every week? He can help take this club to the next level.”
Yet notwithstanding his performances for Sale, his renaissance for South Africa has been remarkable. De Klerk was thrown into the national side in 2016 during the worst year in their history, when they lost eight times – with the nadir for the scrum-half the defeat to Cardiff in Wales when he was sent to the sin-bin. The Springboks seemingly moved on, with De Klerk cast aside, but Diamond never had anything other than complete faith in the player’s ability.
“We tried to work around him as opposed to him coming here and adjusting to us, because he’s so good,” Diamond says. “He’s a vibrant player, a character, and he does lead by example. It hasn’t surprised me to see him have the impact he’s had on them. His ability could fit any style across the world; maybe he’s been frustrated elsewhere but here we want him to play. No team wants Faf de Klerk running at them.
“We’ve always believed he can transform a game on his own. That belief and time we’ve invested in him was key. I can genuinely only compare him to someone like Lionel Messi, someone who is so instantly recognisably at home and is genuinely world-class. He’s a sponsors’ dream, he’s at the top of his game and we’re delighted he’s a Sale player for a long time to come.”
The talk around Carrington has been how both the training ground and the players’ WhatsApp group has been much quieter without De Klerk being around. An excitable, positive influence for the club on the field, it is clear he has helped shift standards and culture off it, too. “We believe in setting very high standards here and he is one of the main drivers of that,” Diamond adds. “We’re in an embryonic state here, third ahead of the break for Europe, and Faf and the other South African lads we’ve got are a major part of what we’re building.”
Contracted until 2023, De Klerk is not going anywhere in a hurry – which will not only be good news for Sale off the field, but also the marketing men off it.
So if Sale do win a trophy this season, will we see a repeat of De Klerk’s tomfoolery? “I’m sure the lads in the media and marketing are already whipping up ideas as we speak. Maybe they’re on the lookout for some Sale-branded undies so we can get him doing a photoshoot for us. They’d have to be extra-small, mind. But there’s nothing small about his character or his ability.”