Jean Kleyn: ‘I’d love to play internationals again, it’s an incredible honour’

Munster’s South Africa-born lock admits he has rediscovered his enjoyment for rugby

Jean Kleyn leads the Munster rolling maul during the United Rugby Championship match against  the Cell C Sharks at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jean Kleyn leads the Munster rolling maul during the United Rugby Championship match against the Cell C Sharks at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

He didn’t kill anybody. He didn’t even injure anyone or say a bad word about them. His only ‘crime’ was to uproot his family and commit to Munster, and then having become eligible for Ireland, after playing in three warm-up games Joe Schmidt picked him in Ireland’s 2019 World Cup squad.

Never mind that Tadhg Beirne had also been selected, or that in any case the first-choice pairing was always liable to be James Ryan and Iain Henderson. When Jean Kleyn was included in the squad and the popular Devin Toner was not, he took the brunt of the Little Irelander opprobrium.

Normally an easy going and amiable type, you could see the strain was affecting him in his one appearance in front of the media in Japan. Over two years on, he intimates that the critical attention affected him.

“You know, it’s a thing about rugby, it’s a fickle game. When it’s going well, it’s going great. But if it isn’t going too well then yeah, you’d hate to be on the receiving end of a lot of it. I’d leave you to fill in that.”

But on revealing that he’s begun to enjoy rugby again in the last year and a half, he also confessed as to the reasons why he’d stopped in the first place.

“I’d struggle to pinpoint a time but I think a big thing for me was that I stepped away from any kind of social media. There was a time around the World Cup that I was getting a fair bit of backlash around my inclusion in the squad, which obviously was not really in my hands or my choice at all. Nonetheless, I was still delighted to be there and it was an incredible honour.

“But I think around then I started paying attention to what other people were saying about me, and thought about me, too much, and it sort of took the enjoyment out of it for me. I had a look at myself and my family and what I have, and I realised I don’t really play the game for people who criticise me or are cynical.

“I play the game because I enjoy the game and because my family love it and my friends love it, and y’know, that’s why I do it, and I’ve just been doing it because of those reasons. I discovered my enjoyment again and it’s been superb.

Jean Kleyn in action against Italy’s Giovanni Licata during the game at the Aviva Stadium in August 2019. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Jean Kleyn in action against Italy’s Giovanni Licata during the game at the Aviva Stadium in August 2019. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“Even training is great craic now,” he admits, laughing. “I even enjoy the tough sessions which I hope Graham Rowntree doesn’t hear. Even those sessions are enjoyable, the ones we’re beating the crap out of each other out on the pitch.”

His family and friends became a haven off the pitch, whereas on it there was no sanctuary from the critical eyes which he knew were upon him. “Off the pitch you can step away from it. No one is watching you. But when you’re on the pitch you know everyone is watching and everyone is going to be commenting, saying this and that. But I’ve stepped away from that and don’t pay attention to any of that any more, and it’s been a breath of fresh air. It’s been brilliant.”

The aforementioned Rowntree said earlier this week that Kleyn is “fitter now than I’ve ever seen him . . . and the numbers are undeniable these days because of GPS.”

Kleyn laughs again when he hears that.

“I don’t know, maybe I’m training a little bit harder! I’ve probably shed a few pounds and that always helps. If you’re a little bit lighter you can move around the pitch a bit better.”

Rediscovering his inner rugby child helped too.

“When you’re playing rugby as a schoolboy, you tend to try silly things and throw the ball around and you play with confidence, and I think you lose sight of that sometimes when you play in the professional game. You sort of forget that there is a bit of enjoyment to be had if you try something and it doesn’t work out completely. At least you try it.

“There was probably a little phase there when I was thinking, ‘this is no craic at all’ but I’d say the last season and a half, definitely last season and coming into this season I’ve enjoyed it and it’s been phenomenal just to be out on the pitch, especially this season, it’s just surreal.

“Like, it was great running out on to the pitch and there were actually fans at Thomond Park and I actually felt a little bit nervous, which I didn’t really feel when there was no one there and it was an empty stadium.”

He describes the latter experience as more akin to “a job”.

Jean Kleyn feel the strain during a Munster training session at UL on Wednesday. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Jean Kleyn feel the strain during a Munster training session at UL on Wednesday. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“When there’s people there you know you’re not just enjoying the game yourself but you’re really bringing enjoyment to other people, which I’d say is one of the greatest things about being a professional rugby player, you give enjoyment to other people.

“And it was phenomenal just having fans in there again. You hear the crowd screaming and singing and having a bit of craic, and it’s electrifying. It’s brilliant.”

Rested last week in Llanelli he’s likely to start his third home match against Connacht on Saturday night (kick-off 7.35pm) at Thomond Park, where there’s also that umbilical link between team and supporters.

“I think that’s the one thing I’ve found with Munster. Even against the Stormers when we were not going too well in the first half the crowd was always behind us, which is nice because I think there are other stadiums in the world where if your team is not going well the crowd start going silent. You see the odd fellah walking up the stairs on his way home.

“But I think that’s the one thing we have in Munster, we have real rock steady fans. They’re with you, win or lose.”

Kleyn is now in his sixth season with Munster, for whom he has played 93 times, yet is still only 28. He hasn’t featured in the Andy Farrell era since winning the last of his five caps against Samoa in Fukuoka, and while still harbouring hopes of playing for his adopted country again, seems equally at ease in this respect too.

“You know what I’m not too sure where I stand, to be honest with you. Obviously my aspiration is still to play; I think I’ve one or two more years in me,” he says with another chuckle. “I’d love to play internationals again, it’s an incredible honour and opportunity, so hopefully I can work my way back in.”

Farrell spoke with him before the summer series, as did Paul O’Connell.

“Look, you can only do what you can do. You can put your hand up and if you get noticed you get noticed. If not then, you know, move on.”

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