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'It's just me. I always feel a bit better if we had a little scuffle in the game!'

Munster lock Jean Kleyn is looking forward to the physical side of the clash with Toulon today.

HARD WORK BEATS talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

So reads the short biographical section of Munster lock Jean Kleyn’s Twitter page and it’s a phrase that the 24-year-old South African keeps in the forefront of his mind at all times.

It’s also a concise explanation for his ever-growing popularity with Munster’s supporters.

Kleyn’s all-action and abrasive approach has seen him win over the southern province’s followers since joining in 2016 and he will be a key man against Toulon in today’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park [KO 3.15pm, Sky Sports Action].

Jean Kleyn Kleyn has been an abrasive presence for Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“When I first started playing professionally, I was pretty much as rough as they come,” explains Kleyn when the phrase is put to him after he takes a seat in a relatively quiet corner of Munster’s impressive high performance centre in Limerick.

“I could barely catch a ball, never mind pass a ball. The way I got in was through the hard work – the stuff that no one wants to do, like hitting rucks and defending mauls and scrummaging well, the stuff that doesn’t take a whole lot of technique.

“I’m sure that I ended up playing above a lot of players that were more talented than me, just through hard work. I worked hard in the gym, worked hard on my fitness, and that’s what probably got me my way into playing professional rugby, rather than skill or talent.

“It was my general mindset and my willingness to work.”

While Kleyn has been a success since joining Munster from the Stormers and could go on to play for Ireland after he qualifies under residency terms in 2019, he never saw a future in rugby for himself as a youngster.

He does comes from good rugby stock, with his grand-uncle, uncle and father all having played for Western Province as locks before him, but that was no guarantee.

Kleyn grew up in Linden, a suburb of Johannesburg, and attended secondary school at Hoërskool Linden, which is very far from having a reputation as a production line for future stars of the sport.

“I never really took it seriously, it was more playing for the craic,” says Kleyn.

“We didn’t have much of a team during my high school years. In my final year, I remember we had like 13 guys who were actually willing to play rugby although half of them had to be begged to come to training.

“We would do training sessions with 12 players, so rugby wasn’t ever really on my radar as a possible career option. I figured I was half decent and had the size, so I might as well continue because I enjoyed the game.”

Kleyn was never picked out for a representative team and didn’t attend the U18 Craven Week – where schoolboys so often make a name for themselves in South Africa.

Jean Kleyn Kleyn gets stuck in against Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That lack of underage pedigree led to something of an inferiority complex that has played a role in Kleyn’s rise since.

“I still have it,” he says. “There’s always a little bit of doubt that you’re not good enough in a certain field, you always think ‘These other guys are really good and I need to get better.’

“There’s always a little bit of a niggle and you think ‘If I had gone to another rugby school, where would my progression be now?’

“I’d say at the start it was a big thing for me because my skill level was very, very poor. It’s probably only now getting to a level where I’m not too worried about it.”

He left high school and headed for Stellenbosch University to study for a degree in mechanical engineering and decided to play with the university’s rugby club, better know as Maties, at U19 level.

What he lacked in skill level he more than compensated for in size and that work ethic, meaning he was invited to join the Western Province U19s.

Suddenly, Kleyn went from not even considering rugby as a profession to rising rapidly through the ranks and he ended up dropping out of his studies after six months in order to pursue the sport.

Following an U19 Provincial Championship title in 2012, Kleyn advanced into Western Province’s U21 side, and was a first-choice lock for the province’s senior team by 2014, when he helped them to Currie Cup success.

That same year brought a Super Rugby debut with the Stormers as a 21-year-old, before he made 13 appearances in the 2015 Super Rugby campaign and helped Western Province back into the Currie Cup final, a defeat this time.

“When I came into the Stormers, the big names would have been Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen and Tiaan Liebenberg, they really make an impression on you as a young fellow,” says Kleyn on the topic of key influences.

“You learn a lot from them, not only from a rugby perspective but from a human perspective.

“I remember Jean de Villiers said to me, ‘It takes 50 games to build a good reputation but it takes one game to ruin it. So never allow yourself to have that one really bad game.’ That being said, he understood that it’s only human to err, but it’s all about trying to build that consistent reputation.”

Jean Kleyn arrives Kleyn is loving his life in Limerick with Munster. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Seeing himself a work-rate lock, Kleyn also looked up to Springboks legend Bakkies Botha as he came through the ranks.

“You tried to emulate his playing style. Although he was able to get away with a lot more than you would be allowed to get away with these days. You watch some of his clips and it’s ridiculous!”

Kleyn suffered an ankle injury in 2016 and didn’t play for the Stormers so when Rassie Erasmus made an approach, joining Munster was an easy decision for the young lock.

A friendly call from CJ Stander, who he didn’t know, soon before he arrived put Kleyn at ease and he has grown to love living in Ireland, even if the recent snow was eye-opening.

“CJ’s wife always jokes that if it was sunny all the time everyone would want to live in Ireland, which is the truth. When the sun shines it’s the best place in the world.”

Kleyn says Munster’s culture is spectacular – “there are very high standards set at Munster; you learn or you leave” – and enthusiastically speaks about the quality of their training centre, saying it is unrivalled in most places.

On the pitch, Kleyn made a positive impression on supporters and his team-mates from the off, that work ethic of his standing out.

One area of the game he relishes is the ruck, where he can fully unleash his love of physical contact.

Ruck work can be such an underappreciated part of the game – so difficult to follow accurately during games – but Kleyn’s team-mates certainly don’t ignore his contributions here.

“I really enjoy playing the game but it’s more for the physical contest than anything else,” explains Kleyn. “I just enjoy running into people, it’s a lot of fun!

“I love rucks. I have to say it’s one of my favourite parts of the game. I wouldn’t get to 30 or 40 rucks a game like Billy Holland does, but the rucks I do get to, I try to make as much of a physical impact as I possibly can.

“I think that’s one of the things that you find in professional rugby. The coaches and players, your team-mates, we all see the things that the general public might not. We pick up on the dummy lines you run that end up in a try for someone else, or the ruck you hit on the previous phase that allowed the ball to get out quick.

Keith Earls is congratulated by Jean Kleyn after scoring a try Kleyn celebrates with Keith Earls. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s good to receive a pat on the back every now and again for that. It does get picked up on and it’s one place that we focus on in Munster.

“We praise the ‘unseen work’ as well. It’s not just everyone applauding Alex Wootton for his try against Scarlets last weekend – although, obviously, it was an amazing try – we look back at the three or four phases before that and see the excellent work leading up to the try.”

Kleyn has enjoyed developing a second row partnership with Holland, whose “unsung work” and “big mind in the lineout” have particularly impressed.

The South African scrummages at tighthead lock, in behind the tighthead prop, in what is considered the more physically difficult of the two second row slots.

“It’s tough, man,” says Kleyn. “It’s just ‘bite down and scrum as hard as you can.’ There’s not a whole lot of technique involved in it.

“You just have to give everything for 10 or 15 seconds and sometimes you get caught a little bit high and you get driven back. Tighthead scrummaging is about biting down and giving your tighthead prop as much as you can. There’s nothing glamorous about it.”

One of the more visible aspects of Kleyn’s work on the pitch has been his penchant for getting in the faces of the opposition.

His role model, Botha, was certainly a presence in this way too and Kleyn says it’s something that he will always look to bring for Munster.

“It’s just me. I don’t shy away from confrontation, I always feel a bit better if we had a little scuffle in the game! If you can get into the oppositions’ heads, that’s the one place where you can influence their play in a very legal way.

“If I can get into the head of an opponent and I know he’s focusing on trying to get one over on me all the time, I know he’s not focused on what he’s supposed to be focused on. I think every team needs a couple of guys that just bring a little bit of grunt and a little bit of dog to it.

“You do occasionally end up in a scrap but it’s all good fun. As long as you don’t concede a penalty, which unfortunately does happen!”

Jean Kleyn gets in a tussle with Mike McCarthy 26/12//2016 Kleyn loves a bit of niggle. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Having had the misfortune to miss out on most of the second half of last season due to a neck injury, meaning he was absent for the Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens too, today is Kleyn’s first knock-out game for Munster.

“I felt like I lost out hugely last year, on a personal level and I felt like I could have added something to the team in the play-offs. It was pretty bad for me sitting on the sidelines for six months, but that’s in the past.”

Now it’s time for the affable lock to make up for lost time.

Before he leaves to prepare to get stuck into Toulon’s big names as aggressively as he always does, there’s the question of a quote on his Instagram page.

I’m like a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.

Kleyn smiles.

“Oh, that’s Batman! In the Dark Knight, Heath Ledger says it. I just thought it was a really cool quote, it’s not something profound about me!”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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