Springboks lock Jean Kleyn feels like his 2019 World Cup debut for Ireland was a different lifetime as he gets ready to make his debut at the 2023 Rugby World Cup for his country of birth.
Kleyn will add his name to a select group of players who have represented two different countries at rugby’s international showpiece in consecutive tournaments.
He initially made his debut at the 2019 championship in Japan for Ireland.
But thanks to World Rugby’s eligibility laws changing recently, and a surprise call from SA Rugby’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, the lock will make his Springboks’ World Cup debut on Sunday against Romania in Bordeaux ( kick-off 3pm) in the second Pool B game.
After not being included in Ireland’s plans since the 2019 World Cup – he has only played in five Tests for his adopted country – Kleyn will now equal his Irish Test tally by playing in his fifth Test for the Springboks against the Romanians in France.
Judging by how highly he is rated in the Bok camp, he will most likely feature again further down the line when they face Ireland (September 23, Saint-Denis) or Tonga (October 1, Marseille) in the final Pool B matches.
Kleyn says he remains grateful to have represented Ireland, but his debut for his country of birth will be a proud moment for him and his family.
“For me, intrinsically I’m not the same person I was in 2019. It almost feels like it was a different lifetime,” said Kleyn about his growth between the two tournaments.
“But obviously I’m really honoured to have played for Ireland, and I’m delighted now to be representing my country of birth, South Africa, and it’s an opportunity I really relish.
“It’s a proud moment for me and my family to get my debut for South Africa at the World Cup.
“If you asked me three-and-a-half months ago I would have said there’s no chance, it’s not even on the radar, so I’m delighted it’s happened. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
He described the feeling of being part of World Cup squads for two different nations as a bizarre one. In 2019, he played against Italy and Samoa for his then adopted country.
Now he and his compatriots are on a collision course with some of his former teammates, although Kleyn says he hasn’t thought about it that much.
“They feel so detached from each other because so much time has passed, in my mind at least, since the 2019 World Cup. As a person I’ve grown so much, and as a player I’ve developed quite a bit as well.
“It’s not something I’ve thought much about,” Kleyn added about possibly facing the Irish.
“You want to play against the best teams in the world, and I think Ireland is one of the best teams in the world at the moment, so I’d love to play against them.
“I’ve played against all of them throughout the years against Leinster and Ulster and Connacht, so I know the players well, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity if it does present itself.”
The Boks will count on Kleyn and fellow lock Marvin Orie, who will also be making his World Cup debut, to provide the impetus among the forwards, especially at the line-out and the breakdown.
In the backline, the midfield combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Canan Moodie will hopefully kick on from their performance against the All Blacks at Twickenham a couple of weeks ago.
Both centres will make their World Cup debut alongside converted winger Grant Williams. World Cup winners fullback Willie le Roux, flyhalf Damian Willemse, winger Makazole Mapimpi and scrumhalf Cobus Reinach should provide the experience at the back.
“It’s obviously a dream come true for me. I’ve worked long and hard for this, and finally the day has come to play my first game at a World Cup. I’m very excited and looking forward to it,” said Esterhuizen.