Jean Kleyn, the former Ireland international, finds himself on the cusp of becoming a world champion with his native South Africa, an outcome he couldn’t have foreseen just a few months ago.
Munster lock Kleyn represented Ireland in the 2019 World Cup in Japan under coach Joe Schmidt after becoming eligible through residency. However, the 30-year-old, repeatedly overlooked by Schmidt’s successor, Andy Farrell, was granted permission in June to switch allegiance back to the Springboks. He subsequently earned a place in Jacques Nienaber’s squad for the tournament in France.
Reigning champions South Africa are set to defend their crown in the final against New Zealand, another three-time winner, in Paris on Saturday.
Reflecting on his unique international career, Kleyn said, “I think I’ve caught myself thinking about it probably too often. It’s a strange one because if you’d asked me six months ago if I thought I had any chance of being here at the World Cup final playing for the Springboks, I would have told you that you are absolutely insane.”
He added, “I’ll probably wake up when it’s all said and done and think, ‘Was that a dream or did it actually happen?’ It was outside the realm of thinking. It’s been a fantastic journey for me. It’s been an absolute pleasure being part of it.”
Kleyn, who joined Munster from the Stormers in 2016, earned five caps for Ireland under Schmidt in 2019. His last appearance for Ireland was in the pool-stage win over Samoa during the World Cup. With his international career seemingly at a standstill, he made the switch back to the Springboks, fearing potential backlash from his decision.
However, the response to his choice in Ireland has been overwhelmingly positive, especially since Ireland’s quarter-final exit from the World Cup.
“I’ve been absolutely inundated with messages from Munster supporters – obviously only after Ireland fell out,” Kleyn noted. “Then they really came after us and said, ‘Listen, you’re our second team now, guys.’ The support was really heartfelt from a lot of Munster fans and it made it a lot easier for me because I thought it would be quite a negative reaction when I declared for the Springboks. From my history with Irish media, I figured there would be a few negative articles, but it was resoundingly positive, so I was really happy about that.”
Kleyn, who has had limited playing time during the tournament, including a start in South Africa’s 76–0 victory over Romania and a bench appearance in the Pool B loss to Ireland, may have to settle for a watching role in the final.
Regarding the loss to Ireland during the pool stage, he stated, “Obviously it was a pity for us that the result didn’t go our way, but here we are in the end still. No one really looks back and says, ‘You’ve lost a pool game.’ They’re going to look at whether you win the World Cup. We were disappointed with the result back then but happy with where we are now. It was a fantastic game to be a part of, and I enjoyed every minute.”