An energised Faf de Klerk has warned that South Africa are ready to "prove the world wrong" by retaining their Rugby World Cup crown.
The feisty scrum-half with the flowing blond hair is one of rugby's most recognisable players and was key to the Springboks' World Cup triumph in Japan four years ago.
He is now playing for Yokohama Canon Eagles after leaving England's Sale Sharks last year and was one of nine Japan-based players on South Africa's tour of Europe last year.
De Klerk told AFP that Japan's comparatively shorter league season means he is feeling "much better off" physically and believes the Springboks will benefit at the World Cup in France this autumn.
"If you peak too early you will burn out," the 31-year-old said.
"I feel in a good spot considering when I was coming from Sale after a long season going into Springbok games, sort of just hanging on by a thread most weeks. I feel much better."
De Klerk will face Springbok teammates Lood de Jager and Damian de Allende when Yokohama take on defending champions Saitama Wild Knights in the Japanese championship semifinals this weekend.
Unlike many of rugby's top nations including England and New Zealand, South African players are allowed to represent their country while playing for clubs overseas.
The Springboks took players from clubs in Japan, France, Ireland and England, as well as South Africa, to Europe last autumn, and De Klerk believes the cosmopolitan mix gives them "a bit of an advantage".
"Playing styles are different in every competition," he said.
"When you can bring that all together and pull the best out of each competition, I think it's a very good thing."
South Africa narrowly lost to Ireland and France on their European tour, before thrashing Italy and beating England 27-13 at Twickenham.
De Klerk says "the whole world" believes France will win the World Cup on home soil, but he warned the tournament "does strange things to some teams and some players don't like the pressure".
Love and hate
The Springboks, who are sweating on the fitness of captain Siya Kolisi after knee surgery, are ranked fourth in the world and De Klerk believes the underdog tag fits them.
"I think we're always going to see ourselves as underdogs going into games, just because of the opportunities that some of us haven't got," he said.
"We always want to prove the world wrong – I don't think we've ever really been favourites if we've come up against big sides."
De Klerk will be hoping this year's World Cup ends the same way it did in 2019, when the Springboks beat England 32-12 in the final in Yokohama. It was their third World Cup triumph.
The win sparked wild celebrations and pictures of De Klerk cavorting with the trophy wearing only a pair of speedos with the South African flag on them went viral.
The diminutive scrum-half stamped his spiky personality all over the tournament, even squaring up to towering Wales forward Jake Ball during the semifinal.
De Klerk acknowledges that "some love it and others hate me", but he refuses to change the way he plays.
"I hope I bring more joy than anything else, but I know there's a few people probably in England and Wales who don't like me at all," he said.
"But I've also made a lot of fans there, which is great. I think if they get to know me as a person, they won't have an issue."
De Klerk says England will be dangerous at the World Cup despite months of struggle, and believes head coach Steve Borthwick will give them "new energy" after replacing Eddie Jones.
But he warned that the Springboks are "a much more oiled side" than they were at this stage four years ago, and will fight to the last breath to retain their title.
"It's very competitive at the moment, which is great – it shows that rugby is in a good spot and people want to come and watch," he said.
"I would say the top four or five sides in the world could easily do it."