Johannesburg - Forget Lionel Cronjé’s around the back dummy, or Makazole Mapimpi’s catchy post-try celebrations...the one Southern Kings player commentators were moggy about during their tour of Australia was Chris Cloete, an unfashionable openside flanker.
The Aussies, who like their rugby players Crocodile Dundee tough, were taken by Cloete’s angry warthog routine throughout the trip.
His calling card was extreme bravery and almost Mighty Mouse-like strength for a man standing at only 1.76m tall and weighing 101kg.
As it turns out, their instincts about the 26-year-old, whose job description includes poking his head into the ruck furnace, are spot on – Cloete is one of the strongest, if not fittest, players at the Kings.
Nadus Nieuwoudt, the Kings’ conditioning coach responsible for those strong finishes we’ve become accustomed to this season, says a big part of his dealings with Cloete is saving him from himself.
“When it comes to gym, the guy is actually a freak with the amount of training he does,” Nieuwoudt says.
“You won’t find a guy who wants to train harder, or does, than Chris. The biggest job for me is managing him against himself so he doesn’t do too much.”
Having been out for eight months with torn anterior cruciate ligaments when the Kings began their pre-season training in November, Cloete somehow was on the same fitness level as the rest of the team when he joined them in January – a testament to his natural fitness levels.
Nieuwoudt says the former Sharks man’s secret is that he is a great all-round athlete.
“Not only has he got explosive power, but he’s also got strength, which is what makes him different. He’s one of the best all-round athletes around – he’s strong, fast, he’s got a lot of power and his fitness levels are great.”
While he couldn’t have his fitness measured in the Kings’ conditioning phase because he wasn’t in full running yet, Nieuwoudt says Cloete had what it takes to do well in repeat sprints and yo-yo tests (which are a bit like the old bleep test).
“You get guys on the wing who can run quickly in a straight line, for example Usain Bolt is quick over 100m, but he doesn’t do 10 of them back-to-back.
Chris has got speed endurance because he can do multiple 60m sprints over the duration of the game and his quality levels don’t drop off.”
Maximum bench press
But the most impressive aspect of his physical gifts are exercises that are upper-body based, as his Popeye physique suggests.
“We have a 100kg bench press test, where the guys have to bench until they can’t any more,” says Nieuwoudt.
“Chris has done 28, which is the strongest in our squad. The next best is 27, by one of the props. So he is stronger than even the front-rowers in that regard.
“We no longer do the single maximum bench press because I’ve had one or two guys pop a pectoral muscle, but if we were to do it, Chris would probably be doing 180kg to 200kg.
"In the wide overhand pull-ups, he does about 44, which places him in our top five in the squad.”
As a result, Cloete is something of a talisman for the Kings in training:
“The guys look up to him because they know what his physical capabilities are. But he always jokes about it to challenge the others.”
Nieuwoudt warns against people reading too much into Cloete’s gym numbers and concluding that he’s not a quality player, and points out how important he is to a Kings side that still needs to play with the old-fashioned openside flanker when others are moving away from that.
“We feed off turnover ball because we’ve got pure pace in our squad. With turnovers, we can release [the ball] and put the opposition on the scramble.
"Those guys make a massive difference in terms of momentum, we call them Staffies – you’ve got to have a certain type of dog in you to play that position,” says Nieuwoudt.
Indeed, Cloete has more than proved his bravery in the position, as Nieuwoudt remembers:
“Once, he dislocated his finger and the bone came through the skin. The doctor came on, snapped the finger back and strapped it. Not long after that, Chris went on to make a try-saving tackle.
“He’s just one of those guys who doesn’t feel pain; he’s a different breed who doesn’t complain and is always asking for more.”