American Idol

USA Eagles captain Todd Clever turned down a lucrative offer with a European club to play Super 14 rugby for the Lions.

Gaan binne, man,’ Ashwin Willemse tells Todd Clever. The American laughs, nods his head and enters coach Loffie Eloff’s office.

‘The guys are all helping him to learn Afrikaans,’ explains Eloff from behind his desk.

clever‘I’m giving it my best effort, it’s coming along,’ says Clever. ‘I can understand more than I can speak, but I’m able to count in Afrikaans and can also make the team calls. Ashwin has really helped me at places like the gym – picking up useful little phrases. The boys have also taught me how to say a couple of other things, when we’ve been out at night, but I probably shouldn’t say any of them here!’

‘The next thing you should know about him is his nickname,’ interjects Eloff.

For the first and only time during our interview, Clever is no longer his usual confident self, and he scrambles to cover the dictaphone with his hand so that Eloff’s revelation isn’t recorded. ‘It’s Dozi,’ says Eloff, ‘the guy who sings “Ou Ryperd” – they look exactly the same!’

With his long locks, blue eyes, stubble and rock-star looks, Clever wouldn’t be out of place on a stage, but he clearly isn’t happy with the nickname.

‘You guys only came up with it yesterday,’ he says, ‘so I hope it doesn’t stick.’ Somehow, I don’t think that will be the case.

This interview is not taking the route Clever had hoped, and it’s obvious he’s here to talk rugby.

Voted the USA’s Player of the Year in 2008, Clever is the captain of the Eagles and has earned 26 caps since making his debut against Argentina in 2003. The Palm Springs, California resident is also a stalwart of the US Sevens team, having missed only one tournament in five years on the IRB circuit.

Recently forced to choose between playing Premiership rugby in England or moving to Johannesburg to join the Lions, Clever’s decision was never in doubt. While many players opt to head north to pick up a generous pay cheque from a willing club, Clever says financial incentives were never a factor for him. At 25, and with a hunger to experience the best level of competition possible, the 98kg, 1.93m loose forward made a purely rugby-based commitment.

‘Before I came to the Lions at the end of last year, I was actually on my way to Europe,’ says Clever, who refuses to say which club he was supposed to join because he still feels bad about bailing on them. ‘I managed to hold that off for a bit, while others were speaking to the Lions on my behalf. The Lions really were fantastic in getting me here.’

Clever admits to wondering whether he’d made the right decision as he would have earned triple the salary he’s getting at the Lions.

‘Financially, it was the dumbest decision I’ve ever made,’ he says. ‘But I grew up watching Super Rugby, and when the opportunity arose to play in the competition, I took it. It was a goal of mine from the age of 14 and you can’t put a price on reaching your goals.’

Clever insists that while he’s achieved his aim of making a Super Rugby squad, he doesn’t plan on being a passenger at the Lions. Importantly, Eloff believes his new signing has the ability to succeed in the Super 14.

‘I’ve been watching him on the sevens circuit for a few years now, and he always looked like one of the more organised players,’ says Eloff. ‘His work-rate impressed me the most when I saw him play at the 2007 World Cup in France. I could see he was a little rough around the edges, but what he did, he did 200%.’

Eloff is pleased to have given an American the opportunity to play Super Rugby.

‘It’s a big thing for the game in the USA. Todd’s under a bit of pressure, because how he performs could influence whether or not other Super Rugby coaches sign Americans in future. But I’m confident he will do well. This boy can play.’

Clever, though, isn’t bothered.

‘It’s more about being proud of playing in this competition than anything else,’ he says. ‘There is no extra pressure on me to perform.’

The Lions’ first-choice loose trio of captain Cobus Grobbelaar, Willem Alberts and Franco van der Merwe is a key component of the side because of their impact at the most eagerly contested area of the game – the breakdown. With former captain and flank Ernst Joubert set to return from injury, is there space for Clever in the Lions match 22, let alone the starting XV? Eloff believes that he does have a role to play.

‘Todd’s helluva fit and a quick player who can get around the park,’ says the coach.

‘We can play him at openside or blindside, as he’s a good runner with the ball, so he brings some variety to the team. He’s also an open guy who talks freely and his team-mates enjoy him, but his obvious task is to take responsibility for his job in the team and win a starting place.’

One thing that does concern Eloff is Clever’s weight – or lack of it. ‘I would like him to beef up in terms of muscle,’ he says, referring to players like Schalk Burger and Rodney So’oialo who all weigh more than 100kg.

Clever may be the big dog in the USA pack, but he’s a mere pup in the Lions set-up in terms of seniority. But this has not prevented him from contributing to the team or expressing his feelings when he thinks something needs to be said.

‘In a way, everyone is a leader, so I’m comfortable voicing my concerns,’ says Clever. ‘Or if I want to add something, I’ll bring it to the attention of the captain and coaches and it’s up to them to decide whether they use it or not.’

Clever has already earned the respect of his team-mates because he came to South Africa with rugby – and not financial – goals in mind, takes nothing for granted and feels privileged to be in the Lions set-up.

‘Sport has never been about money for me – maybe that will change in a couple of years, but right now I’m just soaking it all in. Whenever I had a chance to play for the US Sevens team, I always put on the jersey. No money can make up for the experience of joining your team-mates on a rugby field. I’m looking forward to the next experience with the Lions.’

By Grant Ball

This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue is on sale from 18 March.