When the de Klerk family decided to move from their native South Africa for a new life in Ireland under 10 years ago, it was an unbeknownst gain for Irish Rugby at the time. Their son, Wilhelm, is blossoming into a rugby player of real potential.
The talented play-maker has really caught the eye in the last couple of years, impressing for St. Michael’s College along with the Leinster and Ireland age-grade teams. The 19-year-old is now showcasing his skills with the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC).
Wilhelm’s father, Naudé, took a job opportunity in Ireland. The family only intended staying for two years, but they fell in love with the country and decided to remain here long-term.
Wilhelm’s rugby career started at Malahide RFC before he played with Clontarf ‘for a few years’. He began his secondary school education in St. Andrew’s College before moving in transition year to St. Michael’s College, where his rugby development excelled under the guidance of Emmet MacMahon and Andy Skehan.
De Klerk, who now turns out for MacMahon’s UCD side in the Energia All-Ireland League, had a memorable Ireland Under-20 debut last Saturday, playing at outside centre for all 80 minutes of the thrilling 37-31 win over France in Aix-en-Provence.
The Ireland U-20 Men’s programme has enjoyed some remarkable achievements in recent years, winning three U-20 Six Nations Grand Slams and registering 22 wins in their last 24 U-20 Six Nations games, going back to 2019. De Klerk was asked if this puts pressure on the current squad?
“I think it does, but it’s also how you look at it,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s a good way to look at it where it puts pressure on you. How I have handled it is that it’s our shot, it’s our year to do it.
“You might lose a game but the best way to handle it is to just come back stronger. You never know, a team might just have a really good game and that could be it. I think taking inspiration from the last few years is a good way to look at it as well.”
The bonus point victory away to World champions France was a great way to kick off Ireland’s defence of their U-20 Six Nations title. It was a back-and-forth encounter, with the French drawing level on four occasions. Jack Murphy’s two late penalties proved the difference in the end.
De Klerk admitted it was a real step up in intensity and physicality, saying: “It was probably the biggest game I was involved in. Having those games last year in France at Under-19 (level) helped me.
“That was my first taste of what a big crowd in France can be, hostile. Just the intensity of it. The AIL has been a massive step for us, it has helped us come up against bigger guys and find a way to deal with that.
“It was one of the toughest games I have been a part of and the crowd was obviously…if you make a mistake, you will definitely hear it. It was kind of tough.”
His budding centre partnership with Connacht Academy ace Hugh Gavin was one of the real positives from the Six Nations warm-up fixtures. He is clearly enjoying playing with the the 2023 U-20 Grand Slam winner, who was a try-scoring player-of-the-match in Aix-en-Provence.
I think Hugh showed how good he is as a 12 at the weekend. Absolutely incredible performance from him, really stepped up as a leader.
“Honestly, we have figured out the partnership and I think it is working really well. His experience from last year has helped me so much. He has taught me a lot about the shape (of the attack).
“It’s always easy have a six foot three, 105kg centre next to you, just gets over the gain-line. He is very good and it is nice working with someone of his class.”
Fresh out of school, de Klerk has enjoyed working again with MacMahon at the UCD Bowl. The UCD director of rugby and head coach, who is in his first season in the two roles, is rated as one of the brightest young coaches in the Irish game.
Previously involved with St. Michael’s College, MacMahon made a vital contribution to the stellar schools rugby production line that has benefited both Leinster and Ireland, at the U-20 grade and senior level, in recent times.
Full of admiration for his club coach, de Klerk noted: “Him, Andy Skehan, and Jay Barron have been the three main coaches when I was in St Michael’s, who have helped me most in my career and made me into the player I am today.
“Emmet is an unbelievable coach and I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves. He has really helped me.
“His attention to detail is probably why St. Michael’s have been so successful, along with Andy in the last few years. Emmet has done a good job with UCD in turning things around this year.”
Richie Murphy’s young guns face Italy at Virgin Media Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.15pm – live on Virgin Media Two). Tickets are available here from Ticketmaster.ie. The class of 2024 are looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd.
“I’m excited to see the home crowd down here in Cork. It’s going to be my first time playing in Musgrave Park, or Virgin Media Park, so I think that will be pretty interesting to see that level of crowd being behind us. I’m really excited for it,” added de Klerk.