‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog’ is a term that has been thrown around for decades in professional sports.
The phrase has been used ad nauseam over the years and would give ‘it’s not over until the final whistle blows’ a real run for its money in the over-used sports phrases sweepstakes.
The theory can be applied to a wide range of sports and is founded on the theory that it doesn’t matter how big you are, how strong you are or how physically dominant you are, it’s all about how much heart and fight you have in you as a person.
Fighting words and great material for Walt Disney films, motivational posters and gym slogans, but in reality, in sports like rugby sometimes the smaller man is just never going to win.
Any sport that places a great deal of emphasis on the equation of ‘force = mass x acceleration’ like rugby does, will generally lend itself to the bigger, more powerful players (think Jonah Lomu steamrolling Mike Catt in the 1995 Rugby World Cup). But rugby is a sport that caters for all shapes and sizes.
The tall, the rotund, the powerful, the quick and the small all have roles in rugby, but at 5′ 8″ and 80 kilograms, even Faf de Klerk is testing that theory.
De Klerk is one of the smallest players in international rugby but on a day when South African rugby faced one of its biggest litmus tests the Lions halfback stood tallest.
With South Africa in jeopardy of losing to Ireland for the first time ever in a series, and for just the second time ever on South African soil, the Springboks needed leaders.
With the series on the line and the third Test very much in the balance, there were no Victor Matfields, Bakkies Bothas, Jean De Villierss, Schalk Burgers or Fourie Du Preezs for the Boks to lean on and guide the team on to victory.
Added to a gaping lack of international experience is a first year coach who has already come under fire for the Boks’ performance in the opening two Tests and who is still figuring out what his first-choice team is, no less his first choice halves pairing.
While Elton Jantjies may provide some competition at fly-half to Patrick Lambie in the long run, De Klerk is now surely South Africa’s first-choice nine of the future.
Like all great Springbok scrum-halves, De Klerk has already shown an ability to dictate the pace and tempo of a game, which admittedly has been aided somewhat by having club teammate Jantjies outside him at outhalf.
The pair’s familiarity with one another has helped this Springbok side with direction at times, where they have looked wayward and confused, but De Klerk is so much more than just a navigator or someone that helps steer the ship, he’s a mast-raiser and a player that single-handedly propels his side forward.
With incredible acceleration and speed, De Klerk can be extremely dangerous around the ruck and is a live wire anytime South Africa are awarded a penalty.
If he senses that the opposition’s defence is in anyway slacking or flailing, he looks to exploit any hole he can find.
South Africa have a proven record of producing these types of scrum-halves with Francois Hougaard and Sarel Pretorious both displaying these qualities in the past, but I’m not sure if either of those players had the same instincts or rugby intelligence that De Klerk possesses.
It’s actually fitting that the man De Klerk replaces in the Springboks side is none other than Fourie Du Preez, who just happened to be one of the most intelligent rugby players to ever play the game. De Klerk has a long road ahead of him if he is to emulate anywhere near the same amount of success as Du Preez achieved in his illustrious career, but the pair do share a great understanding and feel for the game.
While Jantjies may have picked out JP Pietersen with a sublime cross-field kick in the first half and Ruan Combrinck booted a penalty from the halfway line in the second, it was De Klerk who won the Springboks the game on Saturday.
His vital intercept on Paddy Jackson in the 53rd minute and his game-winning tackle on Keith Earls at the death stopped two potential Ireland tries and effectively won the Springboks the series.
‘Size doesn’t matter’ is a falsehood in rugby because it does matter in so many positions, but so do intelligence and instincts.
While De Klerk may be small in stature, he comes up as a giant in his ability to read and make plays on the field, and in a team with a number of ‘beasts’ in their ranks, South Africa could use a few players like him.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena