Faf de Klerk on the run against Exeter Chiefs last weekend

Credit: PA

When it comes to Springboks scrum-half Faf de Klerk, Alex Sanderson is glad to have turned gamekeeper. Poaching plans were hard work. Sale Sharks’ director of rugby feels relieved that he is on the same side as a world champion he compares to a mythical horse.

“Everything was based on taking him out of the game,” Sanderson remembers of encounters with De Klerk in his previous job at Saracens.

“It was: ‘How can we stop Faf running between rucks doing what he wants to do?’ Now I’ve got him, everything is about freeing him up. You’re thinking: ‘How can we let him be his magical unicorn self?’”

In a peculiar yet fascinating twist in this Premiership campaign, Sale return to Sandy Park for the second semi-final just seven days after a ferocious face-off in the last round of the regular season.

De Klerk lassos Luke Cowan-Dickie on Saturday at Sandy Park

Credit: Getty Images Europe 

Sharks eventually lost 20-19 to Exeter last weekend, but not before serving notice of their title credentials. De Klerk’s first touch of the game – just 38 seconds in – captured how his spontaneity unsettles opponents.

With forward runners lined up to his left, the 29-year-old pointed his body in that direction and initiated a pass. The ball never arrived, though. It looked as though De Klerk decided on dummying at the release point.

Faf de Klerk dummy

De Klerk’s dummy and spin buys Sale some room in the opening exchanges

He pirouetted 180 degrees, turning his back on Exeter, towards the blindside before sending Cobus Wiese through a gap. One minute later, via AJ MacGinty’s cross-kick to Arron Reed and some patience inside the 22, Byron McGuigan had scored for Sale.

Sanderson explains that a “mind-set of anticipation” around De Klerk is vital for teammates. Otherwise, it is easy to “miss the push”. Sale do impart some “framework” – watch out for rucks where back-rowers step in at scrum-half with De Klerk sliding out to a first-receiver slot, for example – but only “as a means of giving him a launchpad”.

Similarly, back in 2018 against England, South Africa ran a lineout move that saw them swing back towards the set piece via a midfield switch. Having back-pedalled after his initial pass, De Klerk picked up a second touch and sniped. South Africa had effectively manufactured a blindside for their dynamo to exploit without forming a breakdown.

Couple of cool things from South Africa’s attack yesterday. 1. How to create a blindside for Faf de Klerk to rip into without even setting up a breakdown. pic.twitter.com/ideyzjBgNd

— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) June 10, 2018

All that said, defence is the area in which De Klerk can truly break a game apart.

“You see Faf’s flowing hair and him jumping around the rucks and you think: ‘That’s his X-factor’,” Sanderson continues. “But we had a chat on Monday about what brings out the best in him. It’s when you give him little things to go after defensively.

“In the past, we’ve sent him after [Nathan] Hughes at the base of the scrum against Bristol. The rest of his game flows from that. He’s such a competitor who feels like he still has points to prove.

Faf de Klerk Nathan Hughes

De Klerk dump-tackles Nathan Hughes at the base of a scrum at Ashton Gate

“Maybe that’s through his height or through people assuming that, because he’s got lovely blonde hair, he’s a soft touch. He’s anything but. He’s a real fighter.”

De Klerk prides himself on disruption, self-effacingly suggesting that “maybe” defence has become “an edge to my game over other nines”: “If I can stop momentum or break up a play before it has started, that’s great,” he says.

“I will always try to create pressure where I can, but it’s about being clear with it. If you try to stop everything, you will create gaps in other areas of the field.”

Besides his role on opposition scrum put-ins, De Klerk has a distinct remit at defensive lineouts. He tends to stay in the five-metre channel before marshalling the blindside. Remember how Ben Youngs threw the ball into touch early in the World Cup final? De Klerk had scurried up to cut off any outlet to the wide channels.

Credit: ITV Sport

Phase-play is where he can instigate real chaos. These days, most scrum-halves stay up flat in the front line of defence to help crowd out the team in possession. Gareth Davies of Wales is someone who embarks on one-man pressing missions. Others still sweep in deeper positions. De Klerk alternates.

Occasionally, he will begin a phase sitting back before shooting all the way through, timing his run to cross the offside line and ruffle rival playmakers. He has infuriated New Zealand lynchpin Aaron Smith with this strategy. It is so effective because opposition scrum-halves and fly-halves have been conditioned to scan only the front line for threats.

Faf de Klerk back-field

De Klerk sets up a try for AJ MacGinty against Scarlets by rushing up from behind the front line and causing a poor pass

George Horne of Glasgow Warriors recently borrowed the ploy in a Rainbow Cup match against Leinster and so nearly snared an interception. De Klerk is something of a pioneer, highlighting the possibilities of challenging predictable attacking patterns with unconventional play.  

George Horne very close to picking the ball off here after sprinting up from the backfield. #RainbowCup pic.twitter.com/0PwI4aMZTN

— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) June 10, 2021

“In a game that’s, seemingly, overrun by systems and shapes at times, Faf almost takes it back to the old-school,” Sanderson says. “He almost takes it to the Jason Robinson idea that the opposition don’t know what you’re going to do and neither does your own team.”

Ominously for the British and Irish Lions, De Klerk believes South Africa will “click very quickly” later this summer. Before that, though, is the Exeter rematch – only this time for keeps with a place at Twickenham on the line.

Sale will certainly be more confident of making the Premiership decider for having a magical unicorn up their sleeve.

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