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Jean Kleyn during the South Africa men's national rugby team media conference at Southern Sun Pretoria on July 05, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. Picture: LEFTY SHIVAMBU
Jean Kleyn during the South Africa men's national rugby team media conference at Southern Sun Pretoria on July 05, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. Picture: LEFTY SHIVAMBU

Jean Kleyn admits to looking up to Bakkies Botha when the former enforcer ran amok in the Bok No 4 jersey.

Apart from that jersey, Kleyn will have big boots to fill on Saturday when he makes his Bok debut at Botha’s former stomping ground Loftus Versfeld, against the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship opener.

The Munster lock, capped five times by Ireland, now wears the shade of green he has been watching with envy from afar.

He was keen to stress that playing for the country of your birth is different.

“It was an honour to play for Ireland but it was not my home country. I did not grow up as a young boy watching Paul O’Connell and thinking I wanted to play in his jersey. I was watching Bakkies Botha run around smashing guys and thinking ‘one day, one day’.

“You talk about childhood dreams coming true. I never thought I would get the opportunity and here I sit in a Springbok tracksuit,” said Kleyn.

Kleyn joins the world champions at an interesting juncture. He will wear the No 4 jersey in the Boks’ first Test of the year as they ramp up their preparations for their defence of the Rugby World Cup. Their opposition on Saturday, the Wallabies, start a new era under Eddie Jones who is hoping to quickly knock them into shape before the global spectacle in France starting in September.

What makes all of this more pertinent for Kleyn is the Wallabies want to play with greater authority in the set pieces and in the tight exchanges and for that purpose they have enlisted the help of the biggest locks they could find.

Will Skelton stands 2.03m tall and cracks the scale anywhere between 145kg and 150kg. The man who is likely to replace Skelton during Saturday's Test at Loftus, Richie Arnold, weighs about 127kg but he towers 2.08m.

Clearly Kleyn will have his hands full.

But as much as Skelton and Arnold owe their selection to their size and propensity to make it into the winner’s circle in European club rugby, Kleyn too was recently blinded by bling.

“It is incredible to have RG here,” said Kleyn about having fellow United Rugby Championship winner RG Snyman in the Bok squad. “We are great friends and I’ve been learning a lot from him here to get me up to speed with the systems. If it works out that we can play together, it would be a special moment and a new memory,” said the lock.

The red of Munster courses through the veins of those with influence in the Bok set-up and Kleyn is just happy to be associated.

“I feel like I have gone full circle because it was Rassie [Erasmus, SA Rugby’s director of rugby] who took me from the Stormers to Munster in the first place. Seven years later Rassie phones and brings me home.”

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