Rugby World Cup Exclusive: Faf de Klerk - the big little danger to England's World Cup hopes

Faf de Klerk is a key player for South Africa in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final against England
Faf de Klerk is a key player for South Africa in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final against England

Former England players Dorian West and Mark Cueto provide an exclusive insight into one of South Africa's most dangers players, Faf de Klerk, ahead of the Rugby World Cup final.

'A little superhero', 'electric,' 'an inspiration'- just three descriptions of a player who will have the eyes of the world on him during Saturday's Rugby World Cup final, although you'll have to look down to actually see him.

It is with some irony that one of the biggest obstacles England most overcome to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time is a 5.7ft scrum-half that has been crafted and developed into a world class talent in Manchester.

South African Faf de Klerk travelled to Japan rated by many as the best number nine in the world. Although he'd been fairly quiet in the tournament before the weekend, he exploded into life in their semi-final victory over Wales. He used the platform to demonstrate why he deserves such a high accolade, why he is so important to this Springbok side and why so much of their chances of winning their third World Cup relay on him.

He controlled the game, whether through his accurate box kicking, strong running lines to hold in defenders, hit defensive hits, or by simply getting under the skin of the Welsh - he showcased every element that make the perfect scrum-half.

Like his team itself the 28-year-old has transitioned from good to world class in 16 months and now stands on the verge of ruling the world. That's largely down to his rapid development at English Premiership club Sale Sharks.

Faf de Klerk's Rugby World Cup 2019 stats
Faf de Klerk's Rugby World Cup 2019 stats

Two people that know the scrum-half better than most are men that also know what it is like to compete in a World Cup final.

Sharks forwards coach Dorian West won the tournament with England in 2003, while Mark Cueto was part of the side that lost to the Springbok in the 2007 Paris finale.

Both are desperate for an English victory on Saturday, but know only too well why Eddie Jones' men could be undone by the electric number nine.

Speaking exclusive on Sporting Life's Rugby World Cup podcast Cueto said: "The tempo that he brings, the speed he injects into the game is devastating. Considering he is one of the smallest men on the pitch he is one of the toughest.

"You see him bringing down players like [England number eight] Billy Vunipola, who is three times the width, height and weight of him. You see him dragging these players down like they are rag dolls. He has absolutely no fear.

"He always leads from the front and he is just a down to earth bloke that inspires the team around him."

De Klerk has been kept on a tight leash so far in Japan, limiting his attacking flair, as the Springbok have employed a conservative style based on grunt and brawn to reach the final.

That was perfectly highlighted in that dire semi-final that witnessed 81 kicks in total with 41 of those coming from the men in green. De Klerk has kicked 58 times in Japan. Compare that to his direct opponent in the final Ben Youngs' 36 kicks and it shows how the half-back has diligently stuck to the demanded, boring, game plan.

The general consensus is that coach Rassie Erasmus will have to incorporate a more expansive style in the Yokohama final to have any chance of beating a fizzing English outfit.

With a back three of Makazole Mapimpi, Willie Roux and S'busiso Nkosi or Cheslin Kolbe, England boss Jones will know that if de Klerk can suck in defenders and get the ball wide then his men in white will be in trouble.

And this is where the scrum-half could prove to be a match winner. Despite the Bok limited game plan, de Klerk has made 17 runs, three clean breaks, gained 76 metres and taken 14 carries. Added to this, he scored in the quarter-final win over hosts Japan during his man of the match performance - even when his wings are clipped de Klerk still soars.

It is his willingness and desire to try and make things happen that will provide England with one of their biggest headaches on Saturday.

Gareth Jones previews the Rugby World Cup Final between England and South Africa
READ: Gareth Jones previews the Rugby World Cup Final between England and South Africa

Former England winger Cueto explained: "When you have a nine in your team that is such a consistent threat around the set piece or in broken play they will always hold the first two or three defenders. That's what then creates space out wide for your dangerous runners.

"If you have a nine that is known more for disturbing the ball - just passing it straight on - then defenders head straight out wide to the receivers. It means as a winger, you find yourself in those wide channels getting the ball with only a dead end to run down.

"With Faf because defenders are scared of him making a break himself they stay on him, so when he does pass it, the wider men have space and time to break forward.

"So as a back-three player it is really exciting to have someone in your team like that, because you know you are going to get ball in attacking spaces.

The final has intriguing battles of individuals and units across the field, but the clash between de Klerk and England's Youngs will prove to be one of the most delicious and decisive.

An iconic World Cup moment: 5.7ft Faf de Klerk, right, versus 6.5ft Jake Ball in the semi-final
An iconic World Cup moment: 5.7ft Faf de Klerk, right, versus 6.5ft Jake Ball in the semi-final

They are so similar, both diligently sticking to a conservative game plan, box kick after box kick, when asked, but both were born to attack, run, score and assist. They run similar lines, sucking defenders in, and are never predictable.

But to add to the irony, it is playing against the likes of Youngs with his move to the Premiership that has been the catalyst for de Klerk's raise to the world's best nine.

His journey to star billing was not always obvious or even guaranteed, with the Nelspruit born player taking his time to realise his full potential and understand that flair was not enough.

The stats show it. Leicester Tigers' Youngs is just two years older but boasts 94 international caps compared to the Sale Shark's 29. Youngs made his international debut in 2016, de Klerk six years later.

While Youngs has been an England mainstay, de Klerk was quickly dropped as the Bok lost eight of his first 11 Tests in 2016, resulting in a two year absence. It seemed his international career was over quicker than it began.

The scrum-half battle: England's Ben Youngs v South Africa's Faf de Klerk
The scrum-half battle: England's Ben Youngs v South Africa's Faf de Klerk

West, part of the England side that beat Australia in the 2003 final, believes at Sale he has found a new understanding of the game and the importance of mental discipline and consistency have been the key to his return to the international scene.

Ironically, again, his comeback came in South Africa's series win over England, where the little man played a starring role. He and the Bok have never looked back.

"He is full of energy. He is an exciting player and has a gift of making something happen," said West.

"When he first came to Sale he took a lot of risks and made mistakes. He either scored or his play would allow the opposition to score instead.

"But he's got a lot of that out of his game now, he's become more controlled, more consistent. He understands now how every move and decision he makes has a knock-on affect on the rest of the team. He now makes good decisions and now knows how to put the opposition under pressure whether he has the ball or doesn't.

"I think he is still growing as a player, but he is electric. He never gives up and is someone that is really exciting to watch and work with."

Sale forwards coach Dorian West, left, and director of rugby Steve Diamond have shaped Faf de Klerk into a world class talant
Sale forwards coach Dorian West, left, and director of rugby Steve Diamond have shaped Faf de Klerk into a world class talent

The famous rugby theory of 'do anything and everything, legal or illegal' to takeout the opposition's best player may seem old fashioned in the modern sanitised game, but it still holds true. Just look at the amount of times playmakers like Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton and Dan Biggar have bee hit late and/or off the ball in this competition.

Eddie Jones is not crude enough to go down that route so obviously, but it is certain England's bulldozers will target the smallest player on the pitch. However don't expect de Klerk to flinch, shy away or limp off.

West added: "He has to be so hard. We noticed last season, which was his second in the Premiership, that he was always getting hit off the ball late and getting pulled into rucks. Teams understood how dangerous he is and how hard it is to stop him and they tried everything to unsettle him, but it never worked.

"So they have to target him and take him out of the game. The problem is that it is very hard to do that, as so many teams at club and international level have found to their cost.

Cueto, who had a match winning try controversially ruled out in '07 remembers: "Against Wasps we had a scrum five metres out, Faf picked and went to the line to score, but as he did there was this horrific, sicking clash with Danny Cipriani and a big Wasps centre in this huge three man collision. It was like a car crash. Faf was in the middle of it and you thought he was in real trouble.

"It turns out Cips was knocked out and had to be stretchered off, and the other lad had to have 25 stitches in his head. Faf just got up without mark on him and carried on.

"He is a little superhero. He is so strong. He has everything and what people don't realise is that he is so tough too,"

It is clear Faf de Klerk is admired and feared in equal measure and has become a player fans people pay to see.

Against anyone else and we wouldn't begrudge him victory on Saturday, but with him standing between England and world glory, let's hope when he returns to the Premiership he is carrying memories not medals.

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