There are plenty of big issues to discuss with Faf de Klerk but first things first. Exactly how much is South Africa’s diminutive blond bombshell looking forward to the return of hairdressing salons? “It’s been a nightmare,” he replies, exhaling slowly. “I’m so keen for them to reopen. I’ve pretty much always had long hair but it’s too long now. I’ve been trying all sorts – tying it up, alice bands – but it’s been annoying. I’m very excited.”
It is easy to understand Faf’s impatience, in every sense, to revisit his roots. South Africa won the Rugby World Cup 17 months ago, since when the Springboks have not played a single Test. The 29-year-old last saw his parents back home a year ago and has spent a wintry lockdown living on his own in Manchester. Even his typically ebullient nature – “It’s been pretty hard” – has been sorely tested.
At last, though, there are shafts of light. On the horizon is the British & Irish Lions tour, slated to happen in South Africa in July and August, and the world’s most recognisable scrum-half can hardly wait. “At the moment things are way more open there than here but we don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s all up to the SA government.” Fans or no fans, the Boks are keen to demonstrate their 2019 triumph was no fluke. “We want to show we deserved it, that it wasn’t just the luck of the draw.”
And meanwhile his club, Sale Sharks, are also desperate to prove a point, starting this weekend with the Champions Cup trip to west Wales to face the Scarlets. Win and, for only the second time in the club’s history, they will be involved in the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition. As the Sharks’ director of rugby, Alex Sanderson, bluntly puts it: “Sale has forever been the underdog. If we win it’s because someone else played badly. I think we’re all getting a bit sick and tired of that.”
The disappointments of last season – when the Sharks were forced out of the Premiership play-offs because of a squad Covid-19 outbreak – have also stoked northern fires and De Klerk, despite hailing from Nelspruit rather than Northenden, is as motivated as anyone. “I definitely feel like that. The last three seasons we’ve gradually risen up the log but we want to be a dominant force. We want to get away from this whole vibe of ‘Sale are just a scrappy northern side who play rough rugby’. We want to get that tag off our shoulders and be one of the great teams of the Premiership.”
Not that the dagger-sharp De Klerk needs any second invitation to make a nuisance of himself. Perceptions, though, can be misleading: an awful lot of painstaking homework goes into becoming world rugby’s biggest on-field irritant. “I definitely have a look at the opposition nine and see if there are any traits I can pick up on to put him under pressure. Say a nine tends to run off the base. If he changes direction, I can maybe be in his eyeline or get in his way. On attack I’ll keep a look out to see if the flankers are slow off the base or if there’s space in the backfield. I basically try to figure out any advantage I can gain.”
And if none of this works then maybe a little chat just might. “Gloucester had a young nine who tried to say something to me and then kicked two balls directly into touch. That was a great opportunity just to say: ‘Yah, you wanted to say something to me and now look what’s happened!’ Some guys like to chat but it might affect others. I do try to play on that if I can.” Against which opponent does he most enjoy pitting his wits? “A lot of nines prefer to get stuck into the bigger lads because they know they can’t do anything. But I love playing against Danny Care because of the threat he poses. He’s always a challenging guy to play against.”
The Scarlets and Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies should consider himself forewarned. De Klerk may have won a World Cup – and stripped down to his underpants to talk to Prince Harry afterwards – but he remains hungry for more. “You can’t just win a World Cup and then play rugby as if you don’t know how to do it.” Despite standing only 5ft 71/2in tall nothing fazes him – his mother, Corrie, describes him as “like a small jack russell but with the heart of a lion” – and his four years in England, he reckons, have improved him further. “It’s definitely made me a better player. When I first started here I wasn’t in the role I am now of controlling the game and being a leader … that’s definitely evolved my game a lot. If you have a mindset of trying to improve yourself I think you’ll always grow.”
At Sale they also know exactly how to make their South Africans feel part of the family. The latest lighthearted squad initiative has been a series of “Pub Olympics” skill competitions to prepare for the reopening of beer gardens in England on 12 April, with the winners entitled to “a free piss-up” at a venue of their choice. Despite Tom Curry’s controversial return from England duty – “He needs to win something so they put him in the team that was leading” – De Klerk’s team are still in the hunt although a narrow defeat on the darts board alongside his neighbour and good friend Josh Beaumont has not helped their collective cause.
Heaven forbid that his famous bleached hair – “I am scared I might lose some of my strength if it goes” – gets in his eyes at the wrong moment but the more immediate challenge is to cut Scarlets down to size. Sale may be a touch fortunate to be still involved following two early pool defeats but a quarter-final against Gloucester or La Rochelle is only 80 minutes away.
“We’re finally in a position to compete and that’s the exciting thing,” says De Klerk. “I think it’s going to be very close to Test-match quality with the kind of players both teams have now.” Any time he is involved in a big game, it seldom pays to bet against the smallest man on the field.