Munster's Jean Kleyn: Test future lies away from the Springboks
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 11/01/18 8:39pm
Munster second row Jean Kleyn chats to Sky Sports about life in Limerick, his rugby beginnings, "loving the cold" and Test ambitions ahead of the province's crucial Champions Cup trip to Racing 92 on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Action.
The towering South African lock moved to Ireland from the Stormers under a year-and-a-half ago, when little was known on these shores about the then 22-year-old.
Today, it's no stretch to say he is one of the most important players to the current Munster squad, with his consistent performances of immense power, grunt and energy vital to the way the Irish province perform.
Kleyn's Test future is a topic yet to be properly discussed, however, and further down the line the second row is in somewhat of a unique situation regarding potential international ambitions.
The man responsible for bringing him to Ireland, Rassie Erasmus, has moved back to the Springbok set-up, yet Kleyn will also be eligible for Ireland selection come September 2019 under residency. There's a high chance he could be sought after by both.
"When I moved over I knew full well that my career wouldn't be continued in South Africa," Kleyn replies when asked about eventual Test aims for either nation.
"I've laid down my roots here and I'm pretty intent on just staying here and if it happens that I do get the call-up to the Irish squad in the future, I'd love to play, but obviously that's not set in stone or anything like that.
"I'm just going to keep playing my rugby and hope I'm good enough to make the cut.
"I really love the place. I've been living here close to 18 months now and I've nothing to complain about.
"I even think the climate suits me a bit better because I prefer the cold to the hot! I actually do. I get hot really easily so the cold climate really suits me.
"The guys always make fun of me because I'll be wearing shorts and flip-flops well into winter, that's just how I am!
"I've really bought into the place I think and it's the people as well. The people are so friendly and welcoming that you sort of have no choice but to feel at home, if that makes sense.
"I've been loving the place and I don't see myself moving anywhere quickly."
'Home is when I board a plane in South Africa to come here'
It's clear Kleyn has settled in Ireland like a duck to water, but having moved so far from his family, there must have been challenges along the way?
"You know I've actually found it really easy," Kleyn replies. "Probably the distance is the worst part of it but to be honest, I don't miss home terribly or anything like that because I feel really at home here.
"I've met some really good friends and sort of found a family of my own here in Munster and I've said it before, when I'm going back to South Africa I don't really feel like I'm going home, I feel like I'm going home when I board the plane in South Africa to come here.
"It's an odd feeling but it's the truth."
Kleyn's progression and development at Munster has illuminated the 6'8" lock's capabilities at the highest level of club rugby in Europe.
But how did a player of such quality slip through the South African net? Kleyn neither represented the Springboks at U20 level or was ever involved in any national camps. Two facts which seem to directly contradict his abilities.
"Well to be completely honest I was sort of a late bloomer," Kleyn says. "I played rugby at high school but sort of recreationally, if I can put it that way.
"It wasn't a really fantastic set-up and there wasn't a very strong team, I mean we struggled to field a side in my final year in rugby.
"We only had around 13 guys in my year who wanted to actually play, and half of them had to be big, so my development was slow, especially throughout those first couple of years.
"So that's probably the main reason I didn't play for the U20's. It's because I wasn't good enough, I wasn't skillful enough. I was just very raw.
"But I think at the same time, it's been good for me as well. Because what I do well now is just the simple things. Being physical and things like that is stuff that doesn't require talent, it just requires attitude."
'I took a leap and I've never looked back'
Like many in South Africa, Kleyn played rugby throughout his school days, beginning as a young child, but openly admits that by the time he was playing the oval ball for Hoërskool Linden high school in Johannesburg, it was a game he wasn't taking seriously.
The next chapter in his life saw him begin a mechanical engineering course at Stellenbosch University, and it was for the university team that a potential path to a life in professional sport opened up.
Eight months into his first year at university, Kleyn was earmarked by Western Province and brought into their U19 set-up. So was this the moment rugby turned from a recreation into his life?
"It was more of a decision," he says. "I was studying at university, and I sort of got drafted into Western Province U19's side and then a couple of games later I was called up to the U21's side by John Dobson.
"There was a lot of travel involved and it became really tough to study, because the headquarters for Western Province was about an hour's drive away from where I was studying, so I couldn't really attend classes anymore.
"It basically came to a point where I had to decide was I going to play rugby or was I going to study?
"I just took a leap of faith and said 'If rugby doesn't work out, I can always go back and study but I'm probably never going to have this opportunity again'.
"So I took the leap and I've never looked back. It's been an absolute rollercoaster ride but it's been fantastic, I wouldn't change it."
'You don't say 'Munster' in any rugby circle and not get a response'
After Western Province's U21 team came a spell in the Vodacom Cup side, then Super Rugby and then Currie Cup final success in 2014.
So how did the trans-Saharan 8,000 mile move to Munster come about?
"I wasn't really planning on going anywhere and then I got a call from Rassie [Erasmus] one day basically saying 'I'm going to Munster, do you want to come along?'" he says.
"When I got an opportunity like that, you don't really say no. Working under Rassie and Jacques [Nienaber] again was a massive prospect for me and coming to Munster, which is a world renowned club - I mean honestly you don't say 'Munster' in any rugby circle and not get a response.
"It's massive, and the prospect of playing for Munster was a huge draw. I couldn't say no and had to come."
'Every rugby player plays to get to the top'
A three-year contract was signed and Kleyn almost instantly impressed. Competing with Billy Holland and Donnacha Ryan for a place in the XV, he seemed to have cracked it come the season's midpoint when he started a string of high-profile fixtures alongside Ryan against Leinster in the league and Glasgow and Racing 92 in the Champions Cup.
But then injury struck in February against the Dragons in Cork, and a serious one at that. The initial prognosis on his neck injury was eight to 10 weeks, but in actuality he wouldn't feature in red again that season, missing runs to a European Cup semi-final in and PRO12 final, both in Ireland.
So is there a sense of double motivation on his part to get to those stages again this season?
"Yeah absolutely," he replies. "Obviously I was gutted not to be able to join my teammates on the pitch for the playoffs and the rest of the season last year.
"I really hoped I would make my first season a really impactful one but unfortunately that wasn't meant to be.
"In terms of reaching finals, it's sort of what we play for, it's what any rugby player plays for: to win and be the best and get to the top, so I don't think the motivation is any less or more than it was last year.
"We want to win, all of us do, and I think the fact we've had a little taste of it last year, we're really pushing for it this year."
The man he partnered on many occasions last season in Tipperary-native Ryan, will most likely be up against him in Paris on Sunday. What's Kleyn expecting from the Munsterman in Racing blue and white?
"It's going to be interesting!" Kleyn says. "He's obviously a very tough player and he's good in the lineout so he'll bring a real element to their set-piece.
"And as everyone knows, he's a hard man on the pitch so it will be interesting running out against him but I'm looking forward to it.
"You do get a good taste for your teammates during training, so I know what he's about and it'll be good facing him. He'll be just as excited as we are."
In anticipation of Sunday's clash, Kleyn adds: "They've [Racing] had a really good run these last couple of weeks, so I'm expecting more of the same.
"I think it's going to be a very tough match, obviously it's over at their new home the U Arena and it's the first European Cup match there, so they'll be raring to go with their mind set on opening up the stadium with a win.
"We'll meet them [Racing] with full force and hopefully we get a good result."
It's fitting Kleyn's response touches on the physical aspect of the game. You'd be hard pressed to find a more physical forward in Ireland at present.
Watch Racing v Munster live on Sky Sports Action from 3.15pm on Sunday.