Wednesday 22 May 2019

'Hurt from last few years will help us get there in the end'

South African back-row is desperate to play his part in another huge European showdown for the province, writes Daragh Small

Chris Cloete hard at work in training
Chris Cloete hard at work in training

Big interview: Chris Cloete

Ireland could really do with an out-and-out openside specialist in the Rugby World Cup this year but they won't have Munster's finest PRO14 poacher at their disposal.

Dan Leavy's recent season-ending injury in Leinster's Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster was a huge blow to Joe Schmidt's Japan plans, while fellow Leinster No 7 Josh van der Flier had already been ruled out for the rest of the club campaign.

Munster second-row Tadhg Beirne has caught the eye with his outstanding breakdown capabilities in the Champions Cup, but it's Chris Cloete who rules the roost at his province in the league.

The South African tops Munster's turnover rankings there, having forced 16 in just 13 league appearances this season.

It's an outstanding record for a player who, admittedly, plays every game with the mindset of living on the edge and bending the rules without breaking them.

He has stepped across the line on a couple of occasions though and it has resulted in three yellow cards this season, but the 28-year-old is determined to continue improving his game with the street smarts of all the great openside flankers.

"The refs are always changing the ways they are reffing the breakdown, and you always have to tweak your game to stay on top of that," said Cloete.

"As an openside I am always playing on the edge, and the refs would be leaning towards giving penalties against you most times. But you have to keep the penalty count down.

"My game is all-round fitness and being a nuisance around the park. I got a couple of yellow cards for some silly reasons this season too. But it's just the small things you have to work on in your game.

"I am always on the edge with most of the things I do. But definitely pushing the limits, and trying to tweak the laws to try and get turnovers.

"It's a 50-50 decision at the end of the day, and hopefully I come out with it."

Cloete only arrived at Munster in October 2017 after finishing off his Currie Cup campaign with the Pumas, but it didn't take him long to make an impact in the red shirt.

And his relatively recent arrival means he won't qualify to feature in Irish green in time for Japan. But down the road that is an ambition, and he has stated that in recent weeks.

Desperate

For now, Cloete is desperate to win silverware with Munster and tomorrow's game with Saracens is a massive piece of the puzzle.

The 28-year-old has only played three times in this season's Champions Cup but knows how important this game is to the whole of the province and everyone's hopes of a return to the Champions Cup final.

The two-time European Cup winners haven't featured in a final since they defeated Toulouse in the 2008 decider in Cardiff and after six heartbreaking defeats in semi-finals since, there never has been a greater desire to get back to the top.

Munster haven't won silverware at first-team level since their 2011 league win, and a victory over the 2016 and 2017 Champions Cup winners would be a statement from Johann van Graan's side.

In 2008, Munster travelled to Coventry to take on Saracens in a European Cup semi-final.

They were victorious on an 18-16 scoreline and went on to claim their second title in Europe. Jerry Flannery started at hooker that day and he is the forwards coach now.

Saracens subsequently came through and dominated Europe in recent years, while Munster failed to return to the main stage again. But it could be a changing of the guard at the Ricoh Arena tomorrow.

"It would mean a lot to the supporters and the club, to show that we are actually getting somewhere and building towards being that team that can finish off games in the high-pressure situations," said Cloete.

"Saracens have got some very good skill and some big boys in their team as well. They are brutal, they are very clinical and if you make a mistake they will capitalise on that.

"Obviously, it gets exciting at this point in the season, but you just take every game as it comes. It builds up then when it comes to the play-offs and the business end of the season. It is really good for the club and region to try and win some trophies.

"The boys have come up against Saracens in the past, and tripped up a little bit. But it just gives them a bit more motivation to get a win here.

"We won against Edinburgh and have prepared well in our mindset. But the hurt from the past few years will help us to get there in the end."

After 26 appearances and four tries for his new team, Cloete could finally be on the verge of his first medal in his second season in Limerick.

Munster are three points behind Glasgow Warriors in Conference A of the PRO14, before they host Connacht in the final round hoping to secure a home semi-final.

Confidence is high once again and although he might have to bide his time before an international call-up, the South African is looking forward to a busy few months.

He has relocated to Granard, halfway between Adare and Newcastle West, to the south of Limerick City. It's the peaceful great outdoors that Cloete, and his dog Sage, thrive on.

"I shoot around here with a local farmer called Vincent. I do a bit of clay pigeon shooting with Rhys Marshall as well," said Cloete.

Majority

The majority of the Munster players will answer: "Chris Cloete" when they're posed with the question: "What player would you want with you on a desert island."

He is a man who is at one with the tranquil Limerick countryside and in the summer he will return home to South Africa for similar experiences.

Cloete is a forager on and off the pitch - when he's not hunting for a ball in a high-octane game of rugby, he is out in the countryside to see what's on offer.

Hunting has always been a huge part of his life and he cannot wait to get back to what he loves best with a PRO14 or Champions Cup medal in his back pocket, or maybe even both.

"I still like the outdoors even when it's raining and cold here in Ireland," said Cloete.

"But I am definitely looking forward to going home to East London on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in the summer. The weather is a bit better there."

Irish Independent

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