Jean Kleyn at home in the bosom of the Munster ‘family’

‘I know my skill set has probably doubled since I’ve come over here’ says South African

Munster’s Jean Kleyn scores his sides first try against Racing at the U Arena in Paris. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster’s Jean Kleyn scores his sides first try against Racing at the U Arena in Paris. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

When Jean Kleyn took Conor Murray’s pass almost ten metres out from the Racing try-line in the 21st minute, he still had a fair bit of work to do and was faced by the French international pair of Yannick Nyanga and Teddy Thomas.

But he ploughed through both tackles and used all of his 6ft 8 in/2.03 metre reach to touch the ball down on the line. It was a good finish, his fifth try of the season and sixth in 26 games for Munster.

Yet trawl through his history and in 42 games for Western Province and the Stormers he only scored one try. He seems as perplexed as anyone at this sudden prolific upturn.

“I must have picked up some virus over here in Ireland,” he jokes. “No, seriously, it’s all down to the guys playing around me. I’d say for most of my tries this season I was pushed over the line. It’s all down to the system we play. It gives you the opportunities.”

Yet, as CJ Stander and others have said, such is the spread of talent and professional teams in South Africa that coming into the more concentrated Irish provincial system a player can develop more due to specialised coaching and greater exposure to professional rugby.

“I fully agree with that,” says Kleyn. “I think also because of the size difference in South Africa there’s less of a focus on the skills part of the game. I know, for instance, my skill set has probably doubled since I’ve come over here, just because there’s more focus on skills’ based play, whereas in South Africa you get the ball and you truck it up. Here we’re encouraged to play, which is a great thing. I think it’s good for the game in general. You see more expansive, faster rugby, and it’s a nice brand of rugby to play.”

He’s already been here over a year-and-a-half, although it seems like less perhaps because last season, his first with Munster, was ended in February by a broken wrist. But this season Kleyn’s qualities have become key to Munster’s engine room, in tandem with the late blossoming Billy Holland, and he’s already had more game time than in the whole of last season.

“Oh man I love it. Everything from the players to the coaches to the staff, the supporters, everyone is so friendly and accommodating. They make a real effort to welcome you in at the start. I feel really at home here. I think it’s something that’s quite typical of Munster. You get such a family feel here.”

An engaging, easy-going lad off the pitch, the chair on which he sits in the corridors of Munster’s high performance centre in the University of Limerick earlier this week is too small for his frame. His right ankle bears his latest scar of war, a six-inch long stud scrape.

Lovely place

“I’m always covered in scratches and scrapes and bruises,” he says cheerily. “My mom always used to say ‘you look like you’ve come out of a war. But if you don’t have a good few bruises after a game you feel like you’ve left something out on the field.”

His mother, Andri, is a midwife, and his maternal bloodline is steeped in rugby. His uncle, Jan Maree, played for Western Province, as did his grandmother’s brother, Johan Greber, and father. All were locks.

Jean Kleyn in the thick of things during the recent Guinness PRO14 clash against Connacht at Thomond Park. Photograph: Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Jean Kleyn typically in the thick of things during the recent Guinness PRO14 clash against Connacht at Thomond Park. Photograph: Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“I was basically a fourth generation lock for Western Province. My uncle was 6ft 7in, and my grandmother’s brother was also tall.”

His father, Johan, works in mergers and acquisitions for a trading company, and played club rugby. His full brother, Johan, is a chartered accountant in the Cayman Islands, where Kleyn hopes to visit in March, and his parents having each remarried, he also has a half-brother and half-sister. All have been over at some stage, and last Christmas, his father, his stepmother, their two kids, along with his brother and his wife, Megan, all stayed with Kleyn.

Kleyn grew up in Linden, a suburb 20k outside central Johannesburg, within a short walking distance of both his primary and secondary schools – Louw Geldenhuys and Linden High School.

“It was a lovely place to grow up. My grandfather lived there too and I was actually taught by several teachers who also taught my father.”

Kleyn began playing barefoot at the age of eight in primary school, and didn’t acquire his first boots until he was 13. “I always enjoyed the contact aspect of it, although honestly I wasn’t very good.”

“I said: ‘I’m going to take a leap of faith. If it doesn’t work out I’ll come back to studying’. And I’ve never looked back. I feel very blessed.”

On going to Stellenbosch University, ostensibly to study mechanical engineering, rugby took over after he was spotted playing for the university’s U-19 side, and was invited into the Western Province Under-19 set-up.

Games clashed with classes and the university asked him to choose between studies and rugby.

“I said: ‘I’m going to take a leap of faith. If it doesn’t work out I’ll come back to studying’. And I’ve never looked back. I feel very blessed.”

After winning an U-19 provincial championship in 2012, a knee injury blighted his 2013 campaign, but he did progress to the U-21s and in his first full season with Western Province, in 2014, was part of their Currie Cup-winning team. They reached the final the following year, when he was also part of a Stormers team that topped the South African conference in Super Rugby.

Massive opportunity

An ankle injury would also restrict his appearances for the Stormers in 2016, but he reasons: “You can look at it in two ways. ‘How far would I have come but for injuries?’ Or you can say: ‘Look how far I’ve come in spite of injuries?’ That’s the thing about rugby, you have to be aware that you’re going to get injured, especially in a position that’s very contact-based. That’s just the nature of the monster, and it’s how you respond to those injuries.”

Then Rassie Erasmus called him in June 2016 to inform him he was going to Munster and wanted to take Kleyn with him.

“It was a no-brainer. Munster is such a well-renowned club and it was an opportunity to work under Rassie. His reputation precedes him, and Jacques [Nienaber] as well. I had worked with him for two years at the Stormers. I learned so much from that man. So it was a massive opportunity. The draw was too much. I had to come.”

His family, all of whom have been over since, were fully supportive of his decision. He also maintains that Johann van Graan and JP Ferreira are “fantastic” coaches, “so I think we’ve gotten back what we lost in Rassie and Jacques, and we’re in a good place again.”

Racing 92’s Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa and Munster’s South African lock Jean Kleyn compete for the ball in the lineout. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP
Racing 92’s Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa and Munster’s South African lock Jean Kleyn compete for the ball in the lineout. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP

He is innately strong and his tackle counts and work-rate are high, but he still feels he needs to improve his handling, make more reads in defence, and become more evasive.

At the end of next season he will have completed his three years at Munster and is honest about expressing his wish to remain with them and play for Ireland.

“I was signed on a three-year deal and that was no secret. At this stage, all my focus is on Munster. I’ve no international ambitions as of now. I’m here to play for Munster solely. But if the time comes, and I do get the call-up because I’m playing well for Munster then I’d like to play. Everybody wants to play international rugby and, if I could get that opportunity, I’d grab it with both hands.”

Munster comes first though, and there’s no looking beyond tomorrow.

While he stresses that South African rugby crowds are passionate, he’s been struck by how much a Munster crowd try to be “a part of the game”, as he expects they will tomorrow.

“This is a season-making game. We are in control. We are top of the log. It’s a good opportunity for us to continue our season in arguably the best competition in the world. It all boils down to what happens on Sunday but I’m quietly optimistic. The boys are in a good space, even after last week’s defeat. I think we all know what needs to be done.”

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