'I'd love to play for Ireland' - Road less travelled led Cloete to Munster

The 28-year-old openside flanker has suffered greatly with injuries during his career.

TWICE DURING OUR interview, team-mates of Chris Cloete’s pass and call out reminders that this is a man who loves a turnover at the breakdown.

“He’s a fetcher!” shouts the first, mimicking a South African accent.

Minutes later, we’re interrupted by another jesting call: “I love to fetch!”

We’re sitting in Munster’s high performance centre at the University of Limerick and Cloete smiles as he explains that turnovers are, indeed, his favourite part of the game.

“That’s my best attribute on the field,” says the openside flanker. “If the other team puts 20 phases together and you can turn the ball over, it’s a big moment. It’s a very good feeling.”

Chris Cloete Cloete returns for Munster against the Kings this evening. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The South African, who turns 28 today, has loved the breakdown contest as far back as he can remember, having taken up the sport at the age of seven in his native East London, a city of just under 300,000 people on the Eastern Cape.

Marked out as a promising talent from early on, Cloete laughs as he admits that “the last place I thought I’d end up playing was in Ireland!”

But he has settled happily into life in Limerick since arriving in 2017, sharing a house in Castletroy with team-mates Sammy Arnold and Ciaran Parker, as well as his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Sage, and Arnold’s Doberman.

Cloete – who extended his Munster contract through to 2022 last October – has a strong ambition to play for Ireland when he qualifies in 2020 under the residency rule.

“I won’t be going back to South Africa at all,” he says.

“I’m here to hopefully qualify and play for Ireland. I won’t be going back, I’m here now and I’m going to make the best of this opportunity. I’d love to play for Ireland one day.”

Many rugby supporters have issues with ‘project players’ and World Rugby has changed the residency requirement [that change won't affect Cloete], but he says he’s simply an ambitious rugby player.

Cloete explains that he wouldn’t have played for South Africa ‘A’ in June 2017 against the French Barbarians – a game in which he scored two tries – if it had resulted in disqualifying him for a possible Ireland cap in the future. 

“At the end of the day, you have to look after yourself and what’s best for you as a player,” he says. “It’s a short career and you have to make the best of it.

“I came here as a development player to qualify for Ireland, so I always knew that was the plan.” 

There have been many times in Cloete’s rugby-playing days where the notion of playing Test rugby was far from his mind.

He shone as a schoolboy with the well-regarded Selborne College – the same East London institution that produced World Cup-winning Springbok Mark Andrews, as well as France-capped Rory Kockott and several other South Africa internationals.

inpho_01234951 Cloete scores a Super Rugby try for the Southern Kings in 2017. Photosport / Joseph Johnson/INPHO Photosport / Joseph Johnson/INPHO / Joseph Johnson/INPHO

Cloete earned selection for the prestigious Craven Week at several age grades, impressing for the Border Bulldogs, his provincial side, and playing for South Africa Schools in 2009.

When he was still 17, the Sharks offered him a contract and he moved 650km up the coast to join them in Durban straight after leaving school. A cruel run of injuries followed.

2010 saw him shatter the tibia and fibula in one of his legs. Upon his return, he tore the MCL in his knee.

The hope was that a move to the Cape Town-based Western Province in 2013 would mark an upturn in his fortunes but, out of nowhere, he was struck with glandular fever and missed eight months of rugby. 

“I lost 8kgs,” he recalls with a shake of his head. “You have a fever, your glands are all swollen, you don’t want to eat.

“Your body aches and I got chronic fatigue syndrome because at the start I was actually playing with it, not knowing I had it. It really got me good.”

Sick of the frustration of being sidelined, Cloete decided he was finished with the sport.

“I basically quit rugby, I didn’t want to play anymore. I fell out of the system. I was just out injured for too long and you don’t have a name for yourself and you’re not looked after.

“When I was young I was this ‘next best openside flanker’ and I just fell off the radar, no one wanted me. Why would you want to keep playing? Just for fun, really. I was 22 and I thought I needed to get another career.”

Cloete did regain his health, however, and one of his old Craven Week coaches asked him to play for Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth in 2014.

He impressed in the Varsity Cup, then returned to Durban to play for club side College Rovers. Resigned to moving on with life and not focusing on chasing professional rugby, Cloete suddenly got an offer to move to Sri Lanka and play for a club called Kandy. 

Johan Taylor – who is a co-founder of Rugby Academy Ireland but also had a spell in charge of the Sri Lankan national team – was the man to link Cloete and Kandy. 

“I didn’t know much about rugby in Sri Lanka,” admits Cloete. “I said I wouldn’t mind, I’ve got nothing to lose, said I’d go travel.

Chris Cloete Cloete played for South Africa Schools and South Africa 'A'. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“I ended up playing there for seven months. There’s about 15,000 people at the games, people hanging off rooves, all sorts of stuff. It’s crazy, they’re very supportive of their local teams.

“A lot of the teams had Fijian 7s guys who are playing on the circuit now, a couple of ITM Cup players from New Zealand, a lot of Tongans.”

It was a wild time in Cloete’s life but he relished the rugby aspect of his stint on the island nation off the coast of India.

“The government was really corrupt so they were paying all these major 7s guys to come and play for them. There were talks of kidnappings and all sorts of stuff. You’d be driving down the road with porcupines running across the road, it’s very rural there.

“But I enjoyed myself. That’s where I started wanting to play rugby again. I wasn’t playing for any expectations, just enjoying myself.”

Cloete shone on the pitch for Kandy in the 2014/15 season and was top try-scorer as they claimed the Sri Lankan league title.

He was due to return for another campaign but flew home to South Africa during the off-season, staying in Cape Town and being convinced by a cousin to play a few games with club side Hamilton RFC.

Then a drunken night out with some of his friends who had played in the South Africa v World XV fixture at Newlands Stadium in July 2015 once again changed the trajectory of his rugby life.

“I had a good couple of pints and we went out,” Cloete recalls. “I bumped into the coach that had coached me in Western Province when I had glandular fever, John Dobson.

“It was drunk talk but he asked me if I wanted to come to training! I told him, ‘Email me in the morning and I’ll come, if you remember.’

“I woke up in the morning with a huge hangover and saw an email to come to training on the Monday. I arrived and played the whole season for Western Province.”

Cloete impressed in the Currie Cup and earned a move to join the Pumas in Nelspruit but they immediately agreed to loan him to the Southern Kings as the Port Elizabeth franchise made their return to Super Rugby.

Chris Cloete celebrates after the game Rassie Erasmus signed Cloete to Munster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Despite the Kings’ struggles, as well as an ACL and meniscus injury, Cloete managed to shine over two seasons in Super Rugby and, out of the blue, Rassie Erasmus called his agent to manufacture a move to Munster.

“It was a big step up coming here from where I’d been,” says Cloete, who hadn’t ever met Erasmus before the transfer.

Erasmus was gone back to South Africa only a month-and-a-half after Cloete’s Munster debut in November 2017, but he was pleased to see Johann van Graan arriving as his successor. Van Graan had often been at the Kings as part of the South African Rugby Union’s ‘mobile coaching unit,’ visiting to provide specialist coaching.

While Cloete has had injury travails in Munster – a broken forearm last season was frustrating – he believes he’s become a better, more disciplined player.

There was disappointment and frustration over the last month or so as a badly-timed neck injury meant he missed out on the Champions Cup wins over Gloucester and Exeter, with Tommy O’Donnell earning the number seven shirt.

The last time Cloete played was against Leinster in December, when his game was ended by an illegal clearout from Tadhg Furlong, who was yellow-carded.

“When it happened, I didn’t even know what happened or who hit me,” says Cloete. “I knew when I went off the field on a stretcher and he apologised. He was already standing on the side. That’s rugby, I guess.”

With the luckless O’Donnell now on the sidelines again through injury, Cloete finally returns for Munster against the Kings at Musgrave Park in the Guinness Pro14 tonight [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports] eager to make up for lost time and get back winning turnovers.

It’s the clear strength to his game, with few players possessing the ability to release from a tackle and then clamp back onto the ball as quickly as Cloete can.

While he does analyse his performances at the breakdown, he says much of his best ‘fetching’ work is not quite a conscious thing.

“It’s something I’ve always done – it comes to me naturally,” Cloete explains. “I don’t have to think – if it happens, it happens. It’s second nature, if you can say that.

“Some guys can step – you can’t teach someone to step like Cheslin Kolbe. It happens, one of those things.”

Chris Cloete Cloete at Munster training this week. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Cloete’s physique has been a point of interest for supporters too, with his thick, defined arms and legs – as well as his explosive power – aiding his work in the breakdown, tackle and carry.

While with the Kings he managed 28 reps on the 100kg bench press test, which essentially means bench-pressing 100kg continuously for as many reps as possible.

He also cranked out 44 wide-grip pull-ups but jokes that “my shoulders haven’t been in that condition for a while!”

Getting into the gym has been a way of life for the flanker from a young age.

“I’ve trained hard since I was about 16. I remember at school, I’d wake up at 4.30 in the morning and go to the gym every day.

“That was from the end of Grade 10, so my last two years in school I trained really hard.

“Even when I was 14, I’d go to the gym, not that serious at that stage, and then I just wanted to be stronger and faster. I enjoy pushing myself.”


15. Mike Haley

14. Andrew Conway

13. Chris Farrell

12. Rory Scannell 

11. Darren Sweetnam

10. Tyler Bleyendaal (captain)

9. Neil Cronin

1. Jeremy Loughman

2. Niall Scannell

3. John Ryan

4. Jean Kleyn

5. Billy Holland

6. Fineen Wycherley

7. Chris Cloete

8. Arno Botha


16. Rhys Marshall

17. Liam O’Connor

18. Stephen Archer

19. Darren O’Shea

20. Gavin Coombes

21. Alby Mathewson

22. JJ Hanrahan

23. Dan Goggin

Southern Kings:

15. Masixole Banda 

14. Yaw Penxe 

13. Meli Rokoua 

12. Berton Klaasen 

11. Bjorn Basson 

10. Bader Pretorius 

9. Stefan Ungerer 

1. Schalk Ferreira 

2. Michael Willemse 

3. De-Jay Terblanche

4. Andries Van Schalkwyk 

5. John-Charles Astle (captain)

6. Stephan De Wit 

7. Martinus Burger 

8. Ruaan Lerm 


16. Alandre Van Rooyen 

17. Alulutho Tshakweni 

18. Pieter Scholtz 

19. Stephan Greeff 

20. Andisa Ntsila 

21. Sarel Pretorius 

22. Tertius Kruger 

23. Ulrich Beyers

Referee: Andrea Piardi [Italy].

Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey break down Ireland’s dogged win against Scotland in Murrayfield, and look at the room for improvement, in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly.

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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