The BKT United Rugby Championship playing heavyweights on Saturday night in Paris will fight for the right to be ranked number one in the world of rugby when Ireland play South Africa in the World Cup.
The BKT URC, on the eve of its third season, will showcase the quality of players headlining the league with 35 of the 46 players on Saturday night ambassadors of the BKT URC.
All of Ireland’s match day 23 play for the four Irish provinces in the BKT URC, with Leinster the most dominant among the selections. The Springboks will field 12 URC players, with the beaten BKT URC finalists the DHL Stormers prominent in having four players in the starting XV. Ulster-bound former DHL Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff adds to the Cape Town flavour of a Bok team that is sprinkled with the attacking genius of Manie Libbok at flyhalf and Damian Willemse at fullback. Both wingers, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe were also born and schooled in the Western Cape.
The biggest BKT URC story of Saturday evening belongs to the Munster-based South African lock duo of Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman.
Kleyn’s story has Hollywood written all over it, given his journey from Cape Town to Munster and from playing for his adopted country Ireland in the 2019 World Cup to playing for his country of birth, South Africa, in the 2023 World Cup.
Kleyn, having qualified on residency, played five Tests for Ireland, with his last Test in 2019. World Rugby’s eligibility rule change meant that Kleyn was available to the Springboks when Ireland coach Andy Farrell overlooked him for selection for the World Cup.
South Africa’s coaching duo of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber did not hesitate in getting Kleyn involved, and Saturday night will be particularly significant for Kleyn in fronting his former international teammates.
Kleyn, who started in the Springboks 76-0 World Cup win against Romania, has only ever spoken of the joy of playing for Ireland and of the blessing to get a second international chance for South Africa.
‘There was massive pride for me to represent Ireland back then and now I have a massive opportunity to be able to represent my country of birth,’ he told the media.
Kleyn is loyal to Munster and sees the province as home and as the place in which he developed his game to be an international player.
He is a player who, in many respects, can’t lose, regardless of which green he is wearing.
Snyman will also find the sweet spot in Saturday night’s occasion, given Munster’s loyalty to him since he signed for the province after the 2019 World Cup.
Snyman suffered a serious injury early in his first season and his on-field contribution was further stifled through burns from a freak accident at a Munster end of season squad gathering.
Munster refused to give up on Snyman as a player and extended his contract, despite him playing a handful of matches in his first two seasons. The player, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Viking’ because of his height and look, repaid this faith with a brilliant final hour in Munster’s 19-14 BKT URC final win against the DHL Stormers at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium.
Both Snyman and Kleyn speak of their love for the Springboks, but equally both are emphatic at their affection for the people of Munster and Ireland as a country.
The two are not the only ones familiar with smiling Irish eyes.
Nienaber will step down as Bok coach at the end of the World Cup to become Leinster’s head coach. It will be his second stint in Ireland, having assisted (Rassie) Erasmus at Munster in 2016 and 2017.
Nienaber spoke of the respect the Springboks have for Ireland and for the quality of the BKT URC. He also loves Ireland as a country and will be a regular visitor to South Africa with Leinster.
The beauty of the BKT URC is that it provides a platform for international selection and several South African players have returned from overseas leagues to play in the BKT URC in the past two seasons. The expectation is that the trend will continue, especially on the backdrop of overseas-based veterans like Deon Fourie and Marco van Staden making the Springboks squad once back in South Africa and playing in the BKT URC.
All South African players are eligible for the Springboks, regardless of which league they play in. 12 of Saturday’s match 23 play in the BKT URC, with the Japanese League, France’s Top 14 and the English Premiership combining for the remaining 11 places.