England v South Africa : Can Faf de Klerk be stopped in World Cup final?

In a South Africa side packed with giants, it is the 5ft 7in scrum-half who stands out.The Springboks' route to the World Cup final has been characterised by the grunt and guile of their hulking forwards and dominant physical displays.But directing the Bok brutes around the pitch in both attack and defence has been Faf de Klerk, the blond-locked, box-kicking number nine.So who is the scrum-half dubbed "mini Hercules" who moved to Sale Sharks to reinvent himself? And how do England stop him?
It is just over three years since De Klerk made his Springboks debut in a defeat by Ireland in Cape Town, but it threatened to be a short-lived foray into international rugby.With De Klerk in the team, South Africa lost eight of his first 11 Tests between June and November 2016.Six months later, and with a stipulation in place meaning players with fewer than 30 caps who moved abroad could not represent the Springboks, De Klerk left South African side Lions for Sale Sharks.
England proved to be an unlikely springboard back into a green and gold jersey."The main thing for me when I got to Sale was I got put in a role where I needed to make a difference in the team," said the 28-year-old."A lot of responsibility came my way in terms of how we wanted to play, how we wanted to kick, how we wanted to play our running game."I started kicking for poles a lot more, started doing kick-offs. I played a lot of rugby, got a lot of starts, and the head coach Steve Diamond backed me continuously."Eighteen months after De Klerk's last cap, South Africa boss Rassie Erasmus decided his Sale form could not be ignored and the scrum-half made a try-scoring return in the 42-39 win over England in Johannesburg in 2018."Coming back into the South Africa squad with Rassie and everyone we worked with in 2016, it was just a similar thing - the coach backing the players and knowing what they can bring," explained De Klerk."It's then up to us as players to execute whatever they give to us."
De Klerk said he was "just great friends" with Jake Ball after their semi-final clash A year since his return and De Klerk is now first pick among three quality South Africa scrum-halves. He put in a man-of-the-match performance as the party-pooping Springboks squeezed the life out of Japan to knock the hosts out in the quarter-finals.Then, asked if South Africa could win the World Cup after beating Wales in the semi-final, De Klerk simply laughed and said: "Yes."But he has not escaped criticism at home from those who feel his kicking game often gives possession away too cheaply.In the victory over Wales, the Springboks had just 39% of the ball and a 38% share of territory - which De Klerk says was all part of the gameplan."We've bought in to what we want to do every week. Part of our success is that everybody is on the same page with that," he said.
"I'm pretty excited for when I get a good kick up in the air and I can really start chasing because I know it's a 50-50."He's not one to shirk confrontation on the pitch, either.Footage of De Klerk going nose to nose with Wales lock Jake Ball, who stands 25cm taller than him, went viral on social media and saw the Springbok scrum-half depicted in a series of memes."We're great friends. It was just a nice moment between us," joked De Klerk afterwards."I do enjoy getting physical, it's part of the game, and you do need to be up for it, especially against a team like Wales."So if I can, as the smallest guy on the pitch add a bit of it, that just gives motivation to the rest. So I need to be up for it."
'Bring it on' - Vunipola welcomes Springbok challenge Rugby Union Weekly at the World Cup: Eddie's hotel, Curry's new cats and dodgy tattoos De Klerk joined Sale Sharks from the Lions in 2017 Sale wing Chris Ashton, who has 44 caps for England, rates his Sharks team-mate as the "best nine in the world"."When he's on point I struggle to find a better one," Ashton told the Rugby Union Weekly podcast."You cannot find a defending nine like Faf - he's smashing people. He's like a mini Hercules."The way Faf plays the game, he likes that control and likes to feel as though he is an essential part to what the team is doing."You almost don't need a 10 when he's playing - he runs, passes, kicks. You get that feel from him that it's almost his team.
"Sale flanker Ben Curry is flying to Japan to watch identical twin brother and England international Tom face team-mate De Klerk in the final.Curry says the South African brings a great energy to the club both on and off the pitch - although the Sharks' WhatsApp group has been quieter since he's been away."You hear Faf before you see him," Curry told BBC Sport."He's very loud, he dominates and controls the room, whether that is rugby or whether it is a social situation. He is the centre of attention."That's great as a scrum-half, you want your scrum-half doing that. That's why he commands a game so well. He can walk into a room and command that."What you see on a pitch is kind of what you get off the pitch."
England scrum-half Ben Youngs and South Africa's Faf de Klerk will face each other on Saturday
England scrum-half Ben Youngs described De Klerk as a "busy guy who likes confrontation" before pointing out he has already come up against two world-class opponents in the knockout stages in Australia's Will Genia and New Zealand's Aaron Smith.However, with England having to call up Ben Spencer as a late replacement for substitute scrum-half Willi Heinz this week, World Cup winner Matt Dawson believes starting nine Youngs could become a Springbok target.Dawson says Eddie Jones' side must pay De Klerk similar attention."Everything centres around Faf de Klerk," the former England scrum-half told BBC Sport. "If you were in South Africa's shoes, would you be looking at England and thinking they have got no replacement scrum-half so they should target Ben Youngs?"Do they try and physically intimidate him and put him off his game? That is what you would be trying to do with Faf de Klerk."Maro Itoje is going to try and charge down his kicks. If he has a dart around the fringes he has got to be swallowed up, swung around like a rag doll and put back down."If you take his energy away then South Africa are running low on other avenues to inject any kind of energy into their own team."
'England could be at start of something great' - Matt Dawson column
From the sectionRugby Union
Share this page
Matt Dawson
Rugby World Cup final: England v South Africa
Venue: Yokohama International Stadium Date: Saturday 2 November Kick-off: 09:00 GMT
Coverage: Live radio commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.
I cannot remember the last time I saw a team play as well as England did in their semi-final win against New Zealand.
Not only did it give me hope for Saturday's final against South Africa, but if this is how England are going to play from now on, we are in for some glory days.
This is not just about this week and England possibly winning a World Cup, this could be the beginning of a legacy.
They were in the semi-final of a World Cup against a side who have won the past two tournaments. England were underdogs.
But there were times in that game when Eddie Jones' side were so dominant that New Zealand had nowhere to go, and they knew it.
The All Blacks were running around in the backfield like they were playing sevens. It was as if England were playing against Uruguay.
New Zealand were getting smashed and making poor decisions, knocking the ball on and getting hit in the tackle.
It was wave after wave of relentless England pressure in defence, as well as very good attacking play.
I have never seen that in an England shirt before.
Rugby Union Weekly podcast: Heaven for England
Paul Grayson's England player ratings
'Finest performance of their lives dethrones All Blacks'
'There should be no excuses for England'
England can play better in the final - Jones
After a performance of that quality the danger is everyone is going to look at England's semi-final performance and think that is how they are going to play every week.
It is very difficult to put yourself in that mental state for back-to-back matches but that is what they will be aiming for.
England have had one fewer match in the tournament after their pool game against France was cancelled because of the typhoon. They have had one more day of rest this week.
There should be no excuses. The more I talk about it, the more edgy and nervous I get about whether England are going to win or not.
It should be a matter of how many - but it is the World Cup final and you do not win many of those at a canter.
Rugby Union Weekly podcast: Heaven for England
Paul Grayson's England player ratings
'Finest performance of their lives dethrones All Blacks'
'The week before a World Cup final can be oppressive'
Owen Farrell
Will the pressure get to Owen Farrell and his players?
Before a match as big as a World Cup final, you are trying to occupy the downtime as much as possible with anything that is going to distract you.
It is difficult. You turn on the television and everywhere you look there is rugby. You put on BBC World News and there are pictures of bars in London going wild. It can get quite oppressive.
I remember in the week before the World Cup final against Australia in Sydney in 2003, I went for some breakfast with friends at a little beach club out of the way. There was nobody there.
It was just to have a morning off and chill out. You cannot think about rugby all day, all week.
The England players will be contacting friends and family, maybe trying to sneak out and go somewhere where there are not many fans around.
You start thinking about rugby, then the consequences and the outcome of the final and what the rest of your life could be like. England will be actively trying to blank out all that this week.
England made the All Blacks look like they 'didn't have a clue'
All Blacks lost to better side - Hansen
'A hugely physical, confrontational South Africa team'
South Africa's players celebrate
South Africa's players celebrate their semi-final win over Wales
After watching South Africa's narrow victory against Wales, there is no question that England will be favourites. There won't be any smokescreens being set up by head coach Jones trying to pretend they are underdogs in any way.
You do not see the Springboks getting anywhere near England, but the result could depend on how the game is refereed, what the conditions are like and the fitness of certain players throughout the week.
South Africa are a hugely physical and confrontational team but I can't see them having as much dominance up front with the scrums or the rolling mauls as they did to obliterate and dominate Wales.
That means the Springboks have got to play a bit more rugby. They cannot kick their way to winning the World Cup.
Part of me thinks South Africa reached their Everest in the semi-final. There were big celebrations at full-time, they were parading round the pitch like they had just won it, whereas England did a quick lap and went straight down to the changing rooms.
Springboks will grind out Rugby World Cup final - Rassie Erasmus
From the sectionRugby Union 707
Share this page
Eben Etzebeth
South Africa have won both Rugby World Cup finals they have played, against New Zealand in 1995 and England in 2007
2019 Rugby World Cup final
Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama Date: Saturday, 2 November Time: 09:00 GMT
Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app
Coach Rassie Erasmus has promised South Africa will stick to their physical, confrontational style in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final against England.
In their dour semi-final win over Wales the Springboks had the minority share of possession (39%) and territory (38%), but Handre Pollard's boot and their powerful pack were key.
"We're in with a chance," said Erasmus.
"I don't think the final will be won by a very expansive gameplan and wonderful tries. We'll go and grind it out."
Wales coach Warren Gatland warned England they may have peaked too early after a superb semi-final performance proved too good for defending champions New Zealand in the other half of the draw.
"We have seen teams play their final in the semi-final and don't turn up for the final," he said.
"We will see what England do."
Erasmus is anticipating a tactical battle against England with the two sides well aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses following four meetings in 2018.
England's meetings with South Africa with Jones and Erasmus at the helm
Date Result Total tries
9 June 2018 South Africa 42-39 England Ten
16 June 2018 South Africa 23-12 England Four
23 June 2018 South Africa 10-25 England Two
3 November 2018 England 12-11 South Africa One
England lost a Test series in South Africa 2-1 in June 2018 before edging a tight contest at Twickenham in November of the same year.
Those encounters began with the teams sharing 10 tries in Johannesburg and finished with only one in their autumn clash, as the trend moved towards lower-scoring contests.
"They're obviously much better than the last time we played them," said Erasmus of England.
"You could see that the way they dismantled New Zealand. We've played England four times in the last 18 months, it's 2-2... we're accustomed to the way they play."
Scrum-half Faf de Klerk echoed his coach's claim that South Africa would not stray far from the template they used against Wales in reaching the final.
"Pretty much the same as tonight, it's going to be a physical, kicking game, they don't like to play out of their half at all," he said.
"I think it's going to come down to little moments, if you get an opportunity to score you need to use it and, if not, you're probably going to end up losing that game."
Asked if South Africa would take their chances to win the game, De Klerk responded with a resounding "Yes!" before being led away by a press officer.
However Lood de Jager admitted the Springboks, who beat New Zealand by two points in Wellington in September 2018 before taking a draw on their return in July, were taken aback by the relative comfort of England's 19-7 win over the All Blacks.
"The margin of victory surprised us a bit," the Sale-bound second row said.
Watch best moments as South Africa beat Wales to reach World Cup final
"I always thought it was going to be 50-50 because England are a quality side, but the way they beat the All Blacks was quite comprehensive; it was a great performance.
"I think England are the favourites and on their performance last night they deserve to be but, for us, we have a foot in the door and anything can happen.
"If you've watched finals in the past, it's always been tough. Look at 2011. Nobody gave France a chance and they almost beat the All Blacks in New Zealand."