Whenever the gongs are handed out at Munster’s end of season bash, one player who should be in any conversation that highlights and champions excellence is secondrow Jean Kleyn. He’s had an outstanding season for the Irish province, starting all 23 matches in which he’s played and scoring a single try against Benetton.
The 29-year-old’s modest try-scoring return this season is at odds with his Munster strike-rate, which runs at a not too shabby for a secondrow 15 in 135 matches. Kleyn won the last of his five Ireland caps against Samoa in the 2019 World Cup in Japan. There is a discernible improvement from the player he was then to the player he is now.
Munster head coach Graham Rowntree and his assistants Mike Prendergast, Andy Kyriacou and Denis Leamy deserve credit for Kleyn’s improved skill sets.
The six-foot eight inch, 19-stone secondrow had obvious virtues, formidable in the tight, especially in the scrum and maul. But watching him play this season, his ability to offload in and through the tackle, and his general awareness on the ball and passing has added other dimensions to his game.
On Saturday, the South African-born player will return to the club of his formative years, but there’ll be no sentiment for 80 minutes as he gives everything to the Munster cause in the United Rugby Championship final against the Stormers in Cape Town.
A thoughtful, articulate interviewee he was asked what it would mean to him to win a trophy with Munster at his old stomping ground. “Absolutely everything, I’ve been with Munster a good few years now. As far as a club means something to me, it means everything.
“For us to win a trophy, it would be incredible, it is something we’ve been building towards over the last seven years. I would say since Axel [Anthony Foley] passed away, there has been upset and a lot of changes in the coaching staff and we’ve struggled to get cohesion through the last seven years.
“But this year we’ve potentially cracked it in terms of our coaching staff, [they] are really coaching a very exciting brand of rugby and we’re all really enjoying playing it.”
Kleyn has about 25 family and friends travelling to the match, including his dad, brother, wife and in-laws, nice on a personal level, but it’ll be even more enjoyable if the reunion doubles up as a celebration for a Munster victory.
There can be a temptation to portray South African sides and players as brutish behemoths, but Kleyn argues that Munster bring a physical edge, it’s ingrained in the attitude and understanding of the dynamics of a collision sport and cultivated by the coaching team.
“It’s very much a mindset for us, we pride ourselves on physicality, we pride ourselves on detail, we pride ourselves at outworking other clubs, not just on the pitch but in the week. I think we train harder than most teams in the URC, if not most teams in the world.
“From a performance side, our S&C [strength and conditioning] coaches push us to the brink every day and I think we’ve managed to produce more in terms of training load and game load than any other season before, but I think it’s very much a team culture thing that’s matching that.
“The way we train, even in lineout competition, we’re really pushing each other to the brink [in] detail and physicality. It’s just something the way we’re training is what’s making us play good rugby, that is key in all games, not just against the Stormers,” before adding that “South Africans love a bit of rough and tumble [but] I don’t think it is key to this thing.”
[ There’ll be no mixed emotions for CJ Stander when Munster face the Stormers ]
Kleyn spoke about how Stormers head coach John Dobson loves his lineout and maul detail and that’s an area of the team’s game that is very strong and a handful for the opposition, but that Munster had worked hard to be able to negate this as much as possible and then bring their own strengths to bear.
Rugby cannot be sanitised of emotion; the key is getting that pitch right. Kleyn said: “I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to do, I think it’s something we’ve been coaching for a while, the calmness in the chaos.
“I think because we’ve placed such an emphasis on it, just be calm in the moment, you think you have no time, but you have way more time than you think. So, I think for us, it’s really becoming second nature to take a breath and just find a little bit of stillness in the chaos.
“I don’t [know of] any player in professional rugby [that] would not be up for a final so there is obviously going to be that factor. Are we going to be over emotional? No. Do we plan on barging on and throwing fists? Probably not. But we’ll be emotionally up for it, absolutely.”
More of the same would do nicely in leaning on the performances of recent weeks for both Kleyn and Munster.