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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

'There was always going to be a bit of backlash. I don't read it' - Kleyn

The 121kg Munster second row took pride in making his Ireland debut last month.

JEAN KLEYN HAS a few favourite moments from the day of his Ireland debut last month.

The bus journey from the Shelbourne Hotel, the anthem, winning the game. And then there was the pre-match shaking of hands with President Michael D Higgins.

“It’s always good to have a little chat with him before the game, it was very kind of him,” says Kleyn with a smile. “I had to bend down a bit but sure, look, we made it work!”

jean-kleyn-during-the-national-anthems Kleyn during the national anthem before his debut. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

All in all, it was a day to cherish for Kleyn and his loved ones.

“It was absolutely brilliant, it was a real experience to have all that work come to realisation and to know that there’s people out there I’m representing who really put a lot of work into me as well, personally.

“It’s good to know that and it was brilliant being able to run out for Ireland. Family, coaches, my girlfriend Aisling, everyone I interact with on a daily basis and plays a part in your development as a person and a player – everyone that ever had a finger in the pie.” 

One wonders what the president of Ireland has made of some of the debate around Kleyn before and since that debut.

A native of South Africa, the second row joined Munster three years ago and qualified to play for Ireland under the residency rule two days before winning his first Ireland cap against Italy on 10 August.

While the majority of Ireland fans have welcomed the 26-year-old with open arms, others have questioned how a ‘project player’ has come to be part of Ireland’s World Cup squad so soon after qualifying, particularly as Devin Toner was left out by Joe Schmidt.

While some of the negative reaction has been solely based on rugby, there has been a xenophobic tone to other complaints. The inclusion of Kleyn has certainly split opinion, but the man himself has done his best to block it out.

“I’d say there was always going to be a bit of backlash,” says Kleyn, who now has three caps. “I don’t read it.

“And I try not to read into it too much. I’m here to do a job and hopefully I can do that well.”

jean-kleyn Kleyn at Ireland's team hotel in Yokohama. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Kleyn cuts a confident, at-ease figure as he chats in Ireland’s team hotel in Yokohama, where they take on Scotland on Sunday, and he appreciates how swift his rise to Test rugby has been.

Potentially playing for Ireland “was mentioned” when Munster and the IRFU managed to get him onto Irish shores before the Currie Cup in 2016, the long-term view being that he could possibly feature in the World Cup. Schmidt certainly liked what he saw in the still-raw second row at that stage.

Rassie Erasmus was the man to pick Kleyn out, having seen him shine with Western Province and the Stormers, and brought him to Munster.

There might have been some fear Erasmus would work to bring him back over to South Africa when he went home for the Springboks job but Kleyn says, ” Rassie was well aware of the fact that when I came, I came for good.

“I’d have no ambition to go back to South Africa to play rugby. So no, I was never approached by Rassie.”

Importantly, Kleyn has developed in his three years at Munster, adding more skills to the existing strengths he had in areas like the maul, ruck and tackle – though he has sharpened those tools as well.

“I’d say I’m an immensely different player,” says 121kg, 6ft 8ins Kleyn. “The work that’s been done with me, the coaches down at Munster, and then obviously these last two-and-a-half or three months, the coaches here in the national camp, I’d say even in that time period I’ve changed.

“I’d like to think I’m slightly better. I think I’m more of a rugby player now in the sense of not being afraid to catch and pass the ball. I like to actually play the game now instead of just running from ruck to ruck. It makes the game slightly more interesting.”

Having performed strongly for Munster in recent seasons, Kleyn is happy to admit that stepping into Schmidt’s Ireland set-up was a real step up for him.

jean-kleyn Kleyn is one of four locks at the World Cup with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’d say more than I expected. Everyone always says it’s very detail-focused in the Ireland camp, but it’s really detail-focused, you know? But I was expecting it would be different.

“You’ve got the 31 best players in Ireland and they’re all striving to be at their absolute best. There’s no room for error and there’s not much allowance for it either, so you’ve got to be at your best the whole time, which is a good environment to be in.”

While Kleyn may yet have to convince some critics of his merits, Schmidt is a fan and that’s what really counts for the big lock.

He’s had a rapid rise and has strong competition with Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne also in the squad, but the World Cup could allow Kleyn’s upward trajectory to continue.

Originally published at 0100

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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