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Analysis: What can Munster expect from new lock Jean Kleyn?

The 22-year-old joins the province from the Stormers next month.

AS RECENTLY AS 2012, Jean Kleyn had no plan to play professional rugby.

The new Munster lock enjoyed the oval ball game during his youthful days at Hoërskool Linden in the Johannesburg suburbs, but the high school is far from being one of South Africa’s renowned rugby institutions.

No Craven Week, no South African Schoolboy caps, no Junior World Championship. There was little indication of a pro future ahead.

Kleyn Kleyn has seven Super Rugby starts under his belt.

It was only after the 6’8″ second row moved to Stellenbosch University to study mechanical engineering, playing for the university’s ‘Maties’ club in his spare time, that Kleyn and others discovered he had the tools to progress.

Western Province picked Kleyn up and having advanced rapidly through the province’s U19 and U21 sides, the Linden man made his Super Rugby debut for the Stormers in 2014, starting against a Bulls side that included the legendary Victor Matfield.

Weighing in at 112kg at that point, Kleyn coped well and earned a further three appearances for the Stormers in the 2014 Super Rugby season.

Later the same year, Kleyn was a starting lock throughout the campaign as Western Province secured a Currie Cup title. 2015 saw him win 13 further Super Rugby caps, including five starts, as well as impressing for Western Province in the Currie Cup once again, this time ending with defeat in the final.

Kleyn’s rise was impressive and Rassie Erasmus, in his role as General Manager of High Performance with the South African Rugby Union, was keeping a close eye on the promising lock.

Erasmus’ duties included succession planning and a developmental focus on talented young players, meaning Kleyn was very much on his radar.

2016 promised further Super Rugby exposure for Kleyn but a wrist injury in a pre-season clash with the Jaguares spoiled the probability. Instead, the 22-year-old played just once for the Stormers in a campaign that ended last weekend with play-off defeat.

DEbut Kleyn made his Super Rugby debut in 2014.

Regardless, Erasmus understands the ability and further potential Kleyn possesses and, having convinced the IRFU of the lock’s credentials as a project player, didn’t hang around in asking the second row to shift his life to Ireland.

With Springbok Eben Etzebeth blocking his path at the Stormers, it made sense for Kleyn to move on at this stage of his development. Munster have secured a player who perhaps lacks glamour, but is likely to be highly appreciated by team-mates, supporters and coaching staff alike.

Kleyn has worn the number four shirt for every single one of his 30 starts in professional rugby and he is certainly in the mould of the traditional South Africa number four.

Paul O’Connell has always insisted that the second row is, first and foremost, a work-rate position. Kleyn possesses that quality and demonstrates it through his defensive work, rucking, lineout competitiveness and maul efforts.

His ball carrying contributions usually come close to the ruck, mainly off the scrum-half, and often involve seeking gains of inches rather than metres. He jumps superbly at the front of the lineout and generally brings the grunt that every side requires in the tight.

The only area in which Kleyn does not presently fit the accepted criteria for a South African number four lock is at the scrum. The vast majority of his professional scrummaging has been done on the loosehead side of the set-piece.

In terms of strengths, the lineout is of chief importance to Kleyn. Playing with the Stormers in Super Rugby, he has been almost exclusively used as a target and defender at two. That is, at the front of the lineout.

Front Steal

Kleyn is an explosive jumper, even now that he has bulked up to around 120kg, and uses that to great effect in the lineout.

We see as much in the example above, where he makes a steal against the Kings, but his ability to get off the ground quickly is useful on his own team’s throw too.

We’ve seen the Stormers and the Springboks both use Etzebeth as an almost guaranteed source of lineout possession at two, even when directly marked, beating the opposition with his speed off the ground. Kleyn has the ability to be a similarly safe option for Munster.

Defensively, the presence of the towering Kleyn at the front of the lineout is also understandably useful.

Front Compete Bulls 2015

Even when he’s not able to make a clean steal of the opposition throw, Kleyn is excellent at getting a disruptive hand in to cause trouble.

We see good examples against the Bulls above and the Kings below.

Front Steal 2

Every second row in the world is constantly scanning for opportunities to pick off the opposition lineout, of course, and Munster will look to Kleyn as a key source in this regard.

When lineouts turn into mauls, Kleyn’s hunger and power are both useful tools.

South African rugby is well known for its mauling strength and the 22-year-old is already well versed in an art in which Munster have also been traditionally regarded as experts. Going forward, Kleyn’s bulk is effective, while he works hard defensively too.

In the example above, we can see Kleyn fighting right through the middle of a Chiefs maul, threatening the ball carrier and forcing him into splintering away from his team-mates.

Kleyn competes at the front for a possible steal in the air first, before shifting focus to sacking the Chiefs receiver. Swiftly realising that the option of dropping the front of the Chiefs maul has closed off, Kleyn then looks to force his way through the middle.

He pulls himself through, swimming onto the ball carrier and dragging him to deck as he breaks away, allowing Vincent Koch to jackal and turn possession over. Erasmus will be looking for more of the same this season at Munster.

Kleyn’s size and power mean he is an obvious choice to pack down at tighthead lock in the scrum, but that hasn’t been the case during his time with the Stormers.

Having as powerful a presence as possible behind the tighthead prop is crucial to a pack’s scrummaging prowess, mainly due to the fact that more pressure comes through this side of the scrum. Good tighthead locks are highly appreciated by the props in front of them.

For example, one of the reasons Joe Schmidt selected Quinn Roux for the second Test against the Springboks in June was his scrummaging prowess. The now-retired O’Connell was not the shape of a traditional tighthead lock but was renowned for his undying scrummaging efforts behind his number three.

Scrum at LH

As we can see above, Kleyn has mainly locked down on the loosehead side for the Stormers in Super Rugby. In the example above, it’s JD Schickerling who lines up behind the tighthead prop, despite being lighter than Kleyn.

Transitioning over to the tighthead side full-time with Munster seems like a strong possibility for the Linden man. It is also something that he is likely to have been working hard on with the Stormers.

Given his late blooming into high-level rugby, it seems obvious that scrummaging is one of the technical elements Kleyn is still looking to improve.

Scrum

In the still above, we can make out something that intermittently pops up in Kleyn’s scrummaging on the loosehead side.

Kleyn is directly behind the loosehead prop and we can see that his upper back has rolled above where his head is. Naturally enough, that means his shoulders are slipping up from the buttocks of his loosehead and hooker, reducing the power he can transmit through to the front row.

It’s not something that happens all the time, with Kleyn also demonstrating some hugely impressive power behind the loosehead, but the imposing lock will look for 100% consistency if he is to switch to the tighthead side for Munster.

Interestingly, Connacht and Ireland lock Ultan Dillane is a man who is hoping to make a permanent transition from scrummaging on the loosehead side to tighthead in the short-term future.

It is just that more weight comes through,” said the 22-year-old of the challenge of packing down on the tighthead side. “It is something you wouldn’t think it is.

“Personally, on the loosehead side, you are so used to scrummaging. It [tighthead] feels different and there’s more weight coming through  It is a small technical difference but it can somehow make a huge difference.”

Kleyn, like Dillane, clearly has the power to make the tighthead slot his own.

Away from the set-piece, Kleyn is a very strong defender. He appears to relish the opportunity to tackle opposition ball carriers and demonstrates a high work rate around the pitch when his team are not in possession.

His tackling is technically excellent – perhaps underlining that it’s an area of the game he embraces – and marries superbly with his ability to select the right type of tackle in different situations.

Tackle Highlanders 2015

Despite his height, Kleyn is superb at striking low around the ball carrier’s legs, with an aggressively firm wrap of the arms often killing their momentum instantaneously.

Kleyn has worked extensively with new Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber at Western Province and the Stormers and will surely enjoy continuing that relationship in Limerick.

The technical quality and mindset Kleyn brings to defence is also encouraging for Munster as they look to Nienaber’s impact on defence.

It’s not all about low leg tackles with Kleyn, who is equally adept at making an impact with upper-body shots as he combines with another tackler, or wrestling ball carriers to deck with his own upper-body strength. His array of techniques appears to be quite extensive.

Like any tight-five forward, Kleyn is not the most comfortable at defending against attackers with rapid footwork. He is best located closer in to the ruck, where he can utilise his technique and bulk to make a big impression.

Perhaps as impressive as the tackle tech is Kleyn’s desire to make an impact even after the tackle is completed, as we see in the instance below.

Counter Ruck

Kleyn completes the tackle along with Schickerling, but isn’t content simply to flop to ground on top of the tackled player. Instead, he bounces back to his feet and attacks on the counter-ruck, powering through and opening up the turnover chance for the Stormers.

It’s a repeated feature of Kleyn’s play, as he strives to make a second impact after his tackle. He can’t force a turnover below but does manage to greatly disrupt the Kings and tie in rucking players.

Kleyn Fight Post Tackle

Even when he is not directly involved in the tackle, Kleyn shows good awareness around the tackle zone as he looks to provide turnover chances for his team.

At 6’8″, Kleyn is never going to be a world-class jackal over the ball, but he does look to compete when the chance arises. More commonly, his turnover contributions come in the form of counter-rucking over and beyond the ball.

Counter Bulls 2014

Importantly, Kleyn has shown a steady growth in his decision-making ability around the defensive ruck over the last three seasons. He doesn’t simply dive into lose causes.

Instead, there’s a scan, a swift decision on whether to commit or not, then onto the next task.

Kleyn’s rucking in attack is also an effective part of his game. Again, it looks to be an aspect of the sport that he greatly enjoys and there is often real aggression in his ruck hits.

In the clip above, we see excellent work-rate from Kleyn as he bursts from an initial position to the right of Stormers ball carrier Sikhumbuzo Notshe when the flanker makes the linebreak.

Kleyn beats a number of retreating defenders to the tackle and does well to ensure the tackler can’t bounce straight back onto his feet and look to poach the ball. Nit-picking, Kleyn could perhaps do a better job of taking the tackler out of the game completely by grounding him, but the work-rate is strong and he ensures quick ball for the Stormers.

Generally, Kleyn hammers into the contact at ruck time and it’s something that will be of great benefit to Munster. While others may get the credit for the ball carrying and linebreaking, Kleyn will be happy to make multiple contributions of the ‘unseen’ manner.

There may be a period of adaptation for him after coming from Super Rugby, where attacking rucking players hammering into the ruck and off their feet is more commonly accepted as a natural part of the game. Easing off just slightly may be important for Kleyn.

Three-Man Role Bulls 2015

We see above a position that Kleyn often takes up within ball-carrying pods. He’s not the central forward in the pod, the clear first option to carry, instead lining up inside to contribute to the ruck.

We will come to his carrying, but the point is that Kleyn’s duties in South Africa have often been heavily based around providing a big rucking workload. The expectation is that he will continue to be one of the men putting his hand up at Munster.

When Kleyn does get on the ball, it is almost always short off the ruck, receiving the pass from the scrum-half.

Carry Highlanders 2015

That’s entirely understandable, of course, and exactly where Munster want their locks to be carrying the ball.

Kleyn’s footwork is not a strength when carrying, although the reduced time on the ball that comes with hammering up close to the ruck doesn’t always allow him to demonstrate anything other than a surge directly into contact.

In that regard, Kleyn is usually solid in possession and is more than capable of eking out small gains for Munster, as well as tying in defenders. Again, this is not a glamorous role but the carrying wider from the ruck is better suited to back row forwards and backs.

Close Carry

While rarely using footwork to create a more favourable carrying situation for himself, Kleyn has shown an increasing awareness of his running lines when coming onto the ball. Above, we see him pick out a slight gap in the defence, giving him a soft shoulder to run at and through.

The ball presentation, such an important detail, is clean from Kleyn as he goes to ground and that’s also an area where he has vastly improved since first breaking through.

Further away from the ruck in attack, Kleyn hasn’t always looked entirely comfortable. His initial games with the Stormers often saw him lining up very flat and therefore reducing his potential effectiveness as a ball carrier and decoy runner.

Like the rest of his skills, the signs are that this aspect of his game is improving, with Kleyn showing an increased understanding of when and how to run decoy lines as his team looks to play to width.

Kleyn’s own passing skills have been extremely rarely used and it’s likely to be another area of his repertoire that requires further work.

Handling Bulls 2015

Kleyn has at least shown intermittent glimpses of linking better footwork and handling ability when away from the ruck in attack.

We see as much above, with Kleyn taking a pass from Koch before straightening off his right foot to get beyond the tackle, then offloading accurately to Scarra Ntubeni as he goes to ground.

This glimpse is not a common feature of Kleyn’s game but as he develops it certainly makes sense for Munster to push his skills and awareness in attack. Clearly, the athleticism and mobility are there for Kleyn to be effective all over the pitch.

All in all, Kleyn looks like a very strong signing for Munster. He has already demonstrated a promising level of second row play for Western Province and the Stormers, while his ceiling appears to be very high.

Turning 23 late next month and having arrived into top-level rugby relatively late, Kleyn is an exciting prospect for Munster’s future.

Having played just once in the 2016 Super Rugby season, it’s likely he will be in good condition next month and will be targeting a starting place from the outset of the Guinness Pro12 season.

It seems clear that when Kleyn does play, he will be paired with a complementary lock such as Donnacha Ryan, Dave Foley or Darren O’Shea. Each of those three Munster men is capable of calling the lineout, something Kleyn has not done in professional rugby.

Even if Kleyn does take time to adapt to his new surroundings, he appears to have a bright future in Ireland.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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