Much-travelled pocket rocket Chris Cloete lands on his feet at Munster

If Chris Cloete’s introduction to Irish rugby is any guide, the South African flanker’s European debut for Munster tonight is set to go off with a bang.

Much-travelled pocket rocket Chris Cloete lands on his feet at Munster

The 26-year-old, named alongside Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander for the Champions Cup pool clash with Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park tonight, has been an instant hit in the Guinness PRO14 since his move from the Southern Kings.

Just 5ft 7ins (1.75m) tall, Cloete has nevertheless made a big impression in his first three matches with a man of the match performance at Zebre second time out and last Saturday’s try-scoring contribution against Ospreys back in Cork, when he outfoxed his breakdown rivals with a quick-thinking score from off the ground.

You could also throw in the 14 points Munster scored as a result of the yellow card the Welshmen sustained as a result of some Cloete-induced indiscipline and a searing break down the right to supply a try for Darren Sweetnam in the 36-10 victory.

It all adds up to quite the impact from a pocket battleship of an openside who, until joining Munster in mid-October on a three-year contract, led a nomadic rugby existence, the result of a series of long-term injuries and illness as well as a reticence on the part of some coaches back home to employ a back rower of such small stature.

After stints at the Sharks, Western Province, Pumas and Southern Kings, not mention a spell playing university and club rugby between contracts and even with Kandy SC in Sri Lanka, Cloete has arrived in Munster looking to finally put down some roots.

Nor did a starring role for South Africa A, scoring two tries against the French Barbarians dissuade him from making the move to Ireland and repaying the commitment to him he felt was being made when Rassie Erasmus signed him in July.

“I heard (Erasmus) was interested in me coming here and you want to go somewhere someone backs you to grow your rugby skills,” Cloete said this week.

“So this is one of the best moves in my rugby career, to come and learn from the really big players at the club. You want to go to a place where someone backs you and really believes in you as a player.

“I’m very excited to be here for the next three years and really grow as a player and as a person, on and off the field.”

New head coach and fellow South African Johann van Graan is delighted with the player who arrived the same week as he made his first visit to Limerick to observe preparations for the Racing 92 game in round two.

“The first thing is his speed. He’s very quick for an openside, you see him running in the warm-up. Aled (Walters, head of fitness) had him run with the forwards last week and after one sprint he put him out there with the backs.

“His decision-making at the breakdown is very good and because he’s quite a short guy he’s very difficult to move once he gets onto the ball. He’s a very strong ball carrier. He doesn’t look that big but if you look at his legs, he pumps them.

“Workrate, we’re going to look to up his fitness. He brings a lot of balance to our loose forwards. He’s an out and out openside and I believe he’ll add a lot of value to Munster in the coming years.”

Cloete describes the years that led up to him joining Munster by saying: “It hasn’t been the easiest road to get to now.”

Listening to him elaborate, that is an understatement.

A broken tibia and fibula during a game for the Sharks in 2010 sidelined the 19-year-old for a year, after which he played two years of Vodacom Cup, the annual, early-season domestic competition in South Africa.

There then came a torn medial cruciate ligament in his knee, after which he said: “I didn’t get re-contracted by the Sharks so went off to Western Province for (head coach) John Dobson but after four games I got glandular fever, which put me out for six or seven months.”

Cloete dropped 10kg but found a way back with former underage coach Brent Janse van Rensburg at Nelson

Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. Moving to Durban he played club rugby with College Rovers and: “that’s when I went off to Sri Lanka for seven months.”

That was 2014 and Cloete was 23, the wandering far from over. His involvement with Kandy SC playing in Sri Lanka’s Clifford Cup at an end, the flanker returned to South Africa with serious doubts as to whether he had a future in the game.

He returned to Cape Town to take some time out before returning to Kandy.

“But I bumped into John Dobson and he asked me to train at Western Province and I ended up playing the whole Currie Cup season.

“I don’t know what the reason was but I didn’t get offered another contract by Western Province, so I signed with the Pumas in Nelspruit and then got loaned out for Super Rugby with the Southern Kings and played two years there. They were my favourite two years of rugby.

“I was really happy and really enjoyed my rugby.”

Cloete believes his relatively diminutive height may have counted against him in South Africa and when you consider the 6ft 1in CJ Stander was told he was too small t be a Springbok back rower, you can understand why the 5ft 7ins openside had his doubts.

Yet there was an inner resolve to remain in the position he has played since the age of eight growing up in the Eastern Cape.

“In South Africa, they’re

always looking for a lineout option and big forwards but I’ve stuck to my guns, stayed in my position and tried my best and eventually it has worked out.

“I’ve been told I’m too short to play at flank but then you look at Heinrich Brussow and what he did for the Springboks and how accurate he was in what he did, so if you’re good enough you’re big enough. If you can do what others can’t do then you bring something special to the team.

“When Brussow came on the scene and he really showed the world what a fetcher can do. And then (David) Pocock and (Michael) Hooper, such irritating players who can keep three or four defenders busy.”

Against the Ospreys Cloete proved that being an irritant can pay dividends, his breakdown niggle inducing opposite number and PRO14 debutant Will Jones into an illegal cleanout with the ensuing yellow card that cost the Welsh region 14 points in his absence.

“Most modern coaches really want the big, tall guys, but turnover balls one of the most potent weapons and not every coach wants big players, they want the most potent players. Hopefully, that gives me a chance.”

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