Rugby World Cup: Smaller players make giant leaps in a tournament of behemoths
South Africa’s Faf de Klerk one of the players showing that size is of little matter
South Africa’s Faf de Klerk scores a try at the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Japan in Tokyo Stadium on Sunday. Photograph: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain.
This is a country where size is not everything, where tall people are often stared at, such is their relative novelty value – or, at any rate, they were until international teams and supporters began arriving in droves. Hence, in addition to the entire Japanese team, the stars of this tournament have been the little guys.
In an ever more physical sport such as rugby, where the collisions are king, so it has increasingly become the preserve of massive men. Scrumhalves, for whom speed to the breakdown, passing and box-kicking are primary assets, have become the last viable position for the little ’uns.
However, the performances of Sevu Reece and particularly the Springboks’ winger Cheslin Kolbe (all of 1.72m, or 5ft 6½in) have demonstrated that there can still be a place for small, jet-heeled wingers, especially with such a wicked sidestep.
This is particularly ironic given the gargantuan nature of the Springboks’ pack, backed up by their 6-2 split on the bench. Have there ever been four bigger locks in a match-day 23 than was the case when they bullied Japan into submission?
Operating behind them is their scrum-half Faf de Klerk (also 1.72m), who was chosen as the man of the match last Sunday. One presumes this was somewhat coloured by him scoring off the back of a 40-metre maul by that juggernaut pack, for his box kicking seemed to have no real purpose other than putting it up to Japan to score on the corner.
In truth, Aaron Smith (1.71m) would have been a more deserving winner against Ireland the day before with his near-faultless array of rapid-fire passes, box kicks and tackling.
Be that as it may, De Klerk is a vital component of this Boks team, and is also conscious that, like others, he gives hope to young kids that rugby is not the exclusive preserve of big men.
It is “great to see”, said De Klerk, who added: “I had to do it my whole life and now it is great to see other guys coming through. Cheslin has been amazing for us. For his club in France where most people say you have to be big, a lot of young kids who might shy away from rugby because of their size, it inspires them and gives them confidence. Shows that if you have heart and reach for your dreams you can achieve great things no matter your size. Sometimes what I play for is to inspire young kids to show [them] what they can do.”
De Klerk looks like a player who thoroughly enjoys his work, and it comes as no surprise that he is an eminently pleasant, constantly smiling character off the pitch.
Far from being a weak link in defence, against Japan he was used in what seemed like a free role, empowered in the system designed by one-time Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber to shoot out of the line and tackle Japanese ball carriers over the gain line.
I think that is one great thing about this team – everyone is up for it, and we see the guys being very physical
De Klerk missed three tackles, but made 10, quite a high number.
“It might look a bit role-less but there is a bit of a role going on in there. It is not just willy-nilly. There’s a lot [of planning] going on there. I have to make sure we are covered on both sides of a ruck, make sure there are no spaces.
“The nines in our system have to make sure we come off our line and that the numbers are correct on both sides, then basically just trying to do well for the team by making or creating a turnover. I think that is one great thing about this team – everyone is up for it, and we see the guys being very physical and speaking a lot about that and the boys really pitched up with that at the weekend.”
It will be an interesting match-up between him and the Welsh intercept king, Gareth Davies.
As well as their powerful scrum, maul and straight runners, the Springboks place a high premium on their kicking game, especially when leading. Against Japan, the Boks kicked from hand 30 times.
Many of them looked relatively aimless, but De Klerk said: “I can’t go in too deep about it. So we do kick a lot but we try and read the game and try and read momentum. If you look at the weekend we did kick a lot in the air and Japan did really well to contain our aerial attack.
“But if we look further than that, after that we managed to get so much territorial gain on them with our defence. With the guys being loaded, [we had] a very positive outcome when we kicked, we did give them possession but they rarely managed to do anything with it.
Our top personnel, and from my side, we try to keep the game clean. We always try to go by World Rugby standards
“It is going to be a completely different challenge this week, not the same threats as Japan. It is about seeing the space. I feel our wings have come so far in the space of two years and are really competing well in the air. I think if we can do that this weekend and get a few balls back, which will be a challenge as they have very good wingers. It is going to be up to nine, 10 and 15 to decide which type of kick we going to use.
“If it is going to be off me or 10 or 15, [it] will be up to the team drivers to decide. We don’t always go out with a set plan to just kick. We do read the game a lot. I listen a lot to what Handré [Pollard] is telling me. That’s as deep as I can go into it.”
De Klerk was joined at South Africa’s media day by the Boks’ assistant coach Mzwandile Stick, who said that Kolbe should be fit despite sitting out training on Tuesday with the ankle injury he sustained against Japan. A former fullback and multi-capped Sevens specialist, Stick had little time for the concept of spying, as was suggested and previously admitted by Eddie Jones.
“Our top personnel, and from my side, we try to keep the game clean. We always try to go by World Rugby standards. Doing something like that off the field is not what we stand for. We are an honest side, we live by standards of World Rugby.
“It is stupid to do it, you are not only fooling yourself and cheating the people around you, you are also cheating the world out there. People come to watch a fair battle between the teams. I don’t want to dwell too much on it, but when it comes to myself as a coach I think we don’t need that in our space. I wouldn’t promote that, let’s be fair and square between the four lines.”