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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 19 January 2021

'You get to run into a group of lads as hard as you can, what’s there not to like!'

Jean Kleyn is hoping Munster’s maul returns to its best on Saturday as he prepares to bring a high work-rate.

A SOUTH AFRICAN second row enforcer who loves mauls?

It’s no surprise that Jean Kleyn has taken to one of Munster’s traditional strengths with some glee since arriving in 2016, this being among his favourite areas of the game.

He smiles happily when the topic of mauling comes up, settling into a creaking chair at Munster’s training centre in UL, sporting a black eye. Asked who gave him the shiner, Kleyn grins slightly menacingly and jokes, “If only I knew.”

Jean Kleyn in a maul Kleyn is a big fan of mauling. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The 25-year-old, who qualifies for Ireland in August, has become an integral part of Munster’s pack in recent seasons, offering ruck-hitting, hard-tackling, tighthead-scrummaging and close-in-carrying grit.

While many supporters and pundits in rugby base their assessment of a game on the exciting nature of the attacking play, or lack thereof, Kleyn is a man who focuses on the darker corners of the contest.

Rucks, the scrum, the battle for inches on the gainline, the lineout, the maul.

Kleyn is a mauling expert – something that can be difficult to appreciate when watching games live – and he’s sure to be a central figure in this department against Benetton in Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 quarter-final clash at Thomond Park.

The Italians have improved in the tight this season, with former Italy internationals Marco Bortolami and Fabio Ongaro coaching the forwards, but Munster will be looking for maul gains in Limerick.

“I love a good maul, I love stopping a good maul as well,” says Kleyn. “You get to run into a group of lads as hard as you can, what’s there not to like!

“It’s something we as a pack are getting better at towards the end of the season. We had a bit of a dip in the middle of the season over Christmas but we are improving steadily. A bit of a dip this past weekend against Connacht too but we will look to improve on that.”

Jean Kleyn in a maul Kleyn working hard for Munster at maul time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony mentioned before the European semi-final defeat to Saracens that scoring maul tries is “getting more and more difficult to do” at the top levels of the game, also commenting that England and Sarries are “two of the few teams left” who regularly do so.

It’s a sentiment that Kleyn agrees with.

“Teams are getting better at dismantling mauls,” says the former Stormers lock. “It’s tougher to set up a maul these days. There’s no double-bank, there is a lot of things that are making it more competitive from a refereeing side.

“From a coaching perspective, teams are being coached to break the maul apart. Connacht were very successful at it last weekend.

“It is all about bordering on illegality. We do it ourselves. You do your best to get the maul on the ground otherwise you are conceding metres. The biggest thing is that setting a maul and getting a good maul going is possibly more difficult these days.

“But once you get it going, you tend to get good reward. It is something we try to work hard at. We were unsuccessful last weekend but we will try to fix that this weekend.”

Kleyn, who has enjoyed teaming up with Tadhg Beirne in Munster’s balanced second row, will also be tasked with bringing his usual high levels of work-rate against Benetton on Saturday.

Jean Kleyn celebrates after the game Kleyn qualifies for Ireland in August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Italians – who now have a team of six strength and conditioning staff – have improved their fitness drastically in recent seasons and can live with every other team in the Pro14.

The manner in which they grabbed a 27-27 draw away to Leinster last month by scoring on 29th phase in the 81st minute was the most obvious illustration of that, in a game where Kieran Crowley’s side also scored a try on 25th phase.

It’s part of a wider trend in rugby whereby teams are slavishly guarding possession and dragging the opposition into passages where the ball stays in play for a long time.

“I think it’s a big thing the last season,” says Kleyn. “We’ve reached 30 phases a few times in both defence and attack, which is a lot. I think we had something like eight minutes of ball-in-play against a team earlier in the year, I can’t remember which one it was.

“It’s getting ridiculous but we’re training for it, we’re conditioning for it and it’s something we do work towards – training for long, extended blocks of play and I think it is paying off. I don’t think we’re looking lacklustre towards the end of these blocks.

“Our defence has been good and I think we’re the top defensive side in the Pro14 with the least tries conceded and that shows that training for the 20-plus phases, not dropping off, not forgetting to work once you’ve made three tackles in one set of play.

“I think when it gets to that amount of phases it’s very much just instinct, you revert back to what you did on the training pitch. You just work on instinct more than actual thought.

“Fortunately for us [forwards], there’s usually wingers out the back screaming at us what to do so that does help a lot. But I’d say it’s physically more taxing than mentally because your mind switches off after a while. You just go into autopilot.”

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Murray Kinsella

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