Sunday 21 April 2019

'Playing for Ireland is something I aspire to do some day' - Munster lock Jean Kleyn

The Big Interview: Jean Kleyn

Jean Kleyn scores a try against Southern Kings last month. Photo: Sportsfile
Jean Kleyn scores a try against Southern Kings last month. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

The Dew Drop Inn, Galway, was packed with local GAA supporters on St Patrick's Day as St Thomas' and Corofin looked to claim All-Ireland glory at Croke Park.

They didn't manage the double after St Thomas' lost out to Ballyhale Shamrocks from Kilkenny in the hurling opener, but Corofin retained their crown and the title as kingpins of All-Ireland club football.

Jean Kleyn was an unlikely Corofin fan in the Mainguard Street pub, his girlfriend Aisling Kelly is from the north Galway Gaelic football hotbed.

Kleyn is three years in Ireland and admires a lot about what Corofin have achieved with three All-Ireland club titles in the last five years.

Munster have been on the brink of winning silverware in recent times and are desperate to put things right in 2019.

They face Edinburgh in the Champions Cup quarter-finals next weekend while they look set for an extended run in the latter stages of the Guinness PRO14 too.

Kleyn and his team-mates would love to succeed like Corofin did in their field, and the 25-year-old South African hopes Munster could be about to finally bridge the gap.

"We have had a turbulent few years and we have had a good chance to settle now with Johann van Graan being our coach for two seasons in a row," says Kleyn.

"We have had a good season so far. The team is developing well. The leadership group is developing well. We are really coming into our own so hopefully we can lift a bit of silverware this year. We know Edinburgh quite well, we have played them a few times. We know where the threats lie. We know where the weaknesses are that we can exploit.

"Hopefully we can capitalise on the advantage we have and do a bit more work, and gain some more information. At the end of the day we want to get the win and possibly get ourselves a home semi-final."

Kleyn signed for Munster on a three-year contract before the start of 2016-'17, and he extended his stay until June 2022 at the beginning of the current campaign.

He won his 50th cap in a famous win over Leinster during the festive period, and he has eight tries in 56 appearances in Munster red. He is quickly turning into a fans' favourite and a key team leader.

Tries

Last season started like a freight train for Kleyn as he crossed for tries in the first three games of the season and even scored two in the first game against Benetton Rugby. He reserved his next score for a big occasion against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup, but with his power he is a real danger man close to the line.

He has been back on the scoring charts again recently against Dragons and Kings, but Kleyn has stepped his general play up a notch this season and his consistency has been a major bonus for Van Graan as he picks his team around his South African enforcer in the engine room.

"Whenever you play a lot of rugby it's a good season. At the same time you want to keep the quality up there. You want to perform well for the team. It's been good so far," Kleyn says.

"Hopefully it can get a whole lot better over the next ten or 11 weeks. So far this season has been good. We have made a few mistakes and it has cost us. We are on a very good trajectory. We are fairly happy."

Kleyn provides the grunt but there's no doubt that the signing of Tadhg Beirne brought a degree of finesse to the Munster second-row.

"Tadhg is an excellent player. We both learn a little bit of each other, more so me off him. He does a lot of the work that I don't get to do," says Kleyn.

"The same way the other way around, I do a lot of the work that he doesn't get to. We complement each other well. It's been good playing with him. It's going to be good playing with him over the next few years."

Beirne and the rest of the Ireland contingent will filter back in at Limerick over the coming days, and Kleyn expects them to come back all guns blazing.

It was a tough Six Nations for Ireland as they forfeited their crown in disappointing circumstances, but there is potential to return to form ahead of the World Cup and Kleyn has never ruled out contributing to Irish green down the line.

"It's down to them all being professionals, how fast you can transition from being in the international set-up, then coming down and being at your best for your club," he says.

"It's our final block of games now. There is going to be some big rugby played. We need them at their best and I am sure they will be at their best when the time comes.

"The transition will hopefully be done as seamlessly as possible. But they are all professionals so I'm sure it will be.

"I watched all of the Six Nations games and I have said it every time anyone has asked me, it's everyone's aspiration to play rugby at the highest level there is.

"Playing for Ireland is probably the highest level there is. It would be something I would aspire to do one day.

"At the moment I am playing for Munster and I am wearing the red jersey. That is where my focus is and where my passion lies.

"When the time comes then, but I am a Munster man through and through."

Intuition

Kleyn might be right at home in Ireland right now but it could had been different if John Dobson hadn't provided his piece of intuition to a young aspiring lock when he was just 21.

Kleyn lives in Castletroy, Limerick with his own indoor barbecue, a braai room, his bit of South Africa away from home.

He went to school at Hoerskool Linden, a place not known for its rugby. Then he studied engineering at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province.

Kleyn got selected for Western Province U-19 and took more of an interest but was ready to give it all up and return to his studies, before Dobson took him under his wing.

"I was pretty intent on going back and starting to study again. Just getting a degree instead," adds Kleyn.

"He just said you have a future in rugby so don't be too hasty about your decision. If you make it make sure it's for the right reasons.

"At the end of the day he was one of the main factors as to why I continued playing professional rugby."

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