Willie a fans’ favourite at Wasps
- 13 Mar 2018
Willie le Roux is focused on his club career at Wasps, but hasn’t given up hope of a Springbok recall, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
Friday afternoon and fresh from the last training session of the week; time enough to chat between his routine two-hour snooze and dinner. Le Roux is polite and engaging, and he was in fine form throughout, even if he was relishing the prospect of the grilling he was due to have served up the road at Nando’s rather more than the one he was getting from your correspondent.
The restaurant chain, given life 30 years ago in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, has in excess of 1,000 outlets. Nando’s has long been a favourite among professional rugby players and the former Springbok fullback is no exception. And, conveniently, there’s one in his new hometown, Leamington Spa.
He eats there rather a lot. Le Roux is single, lives on his own and his social life revolves largely around friends within the Wasps squad, though an old friend from his school days in the Western Cape now lives in the area. The bright lights of London – and Wasps’ spiritual home – are a two-hour drive south. Even so, Leamington is a stunning town a short distance from Birmingham and a stone’s throw from historic places like Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon.
Wasps’ new base is also a rugby hotspot. The old Coventry Rugby Club, which is now in the third tier, had the best team in England in the 1970s and their most famous player, David Duckham, was one of the stars of the British & Irish Lions’ victorious 1971 tour to New Zealand.
Even so, and even in places like Leamington Spa, winters are grim. Short days, long nights; cold, wet and windy. It’s a state of affairs that can impact on the mood away from the rugby field and certainly shapes the way the game is played on it.
‘I leave home in the dark and I come home in the dark,’ Le Roux says.
Those conditions shape not just lifestyles, but also the way rugby is played. Inevitably, they place greater demands on players, particularly those whose stock-in-trade is fielding balls pumped high into dark skies and blustery winds.
‘Most of the time it’s wet,’ Le Roux says. ‘I’d say you’re playing with a wet ball 80% of the time, even if you can’t necessarily see it. It means I work on high balls every day in training; it’s a skill which is so much tougher.
‘My skills are definitely evolving here. Just to catch and pass is three or four times more difficult than it is in dry conditions. That’s something people watching don’t all appreciate. In England, it’s not like playing a 3pm kick-off in Kimberley.’
Yet Le Roux lives and plays the game like a true professional. Fans’ online message boards are full of praise for not just the quality he brings to Wasps when things are going well, but also the positive attitude he demonstrates when they’re not.
‘The lifestyle makes you stronger,’ he says. ‘I have to do most stuff on my own. I’m not a very good cook but I have to cook for myself. But when you put in a good performance on the weekend, it makes it all worthwhile.’
Prophetic words. Less than 48 hours after our interview Le Roux, on a typically English mid-January day – perhaps worse – purred as Wasps racked up all five points in their last European Champions Cup pool game, at home to Ulster. Shivering sleet and snow was no impediment to Le Roux; his centimetre-perfect chip set up Wasps’ second try and he cantered over to score the third himself in an all-round display that had the following day’s newspapers in superlative overdrive.
A few hours later he was on a plane heading south – with two rounds of the second-tier Anglo-Welsh Cup coming up, the Wasps’ management had given the frontline stars a week off – and a chance to spend time with the family and friends in Strand.
‘I’ve already got my tee time booked for 8am on Tuesday,’ he says.
Who wouldn’t want to swap an English midwinter for a view of False Bay under brilliant blue skies – if only for a week?
But that doesn’t mean Le Roux is unsettled. Far from it. With clouds darker than ever hanging over the Boks and their former fullback continuing to shine, it’s inevitable he should find himself fielding questions about his future in green and gold. His most recent Test was on the November 2016 tour when South Africa were humbled by Italy in Florence.
‘I would be lying if I said I felt my Springbok career is behind me. I’ve got 41 caps and if you can make it to 50, that’s very special. But it’s not in my hands, which is why I always say I must focus on my career at Wasps. I’ve got two more seasons here after this, which will take me up to 30 years old.’
Le Roux has shown remarkable fortitude throughout his first year in England because not everything he has laid hands on has turned to gold. His natural finesse and elan is a joy to watch when those stylish touches operate smoothly but on the odd occasion when they don’t, the critics are lined up.
A case in point is his Champions Cup quarter-final howler against Leinster at a packed Aviva Stadium in Dublin last April, when Le Roux tracked Kurtley Beale’s stunning midfield break, received the Wallaby’s ‘scoring’ pass only to let the ball slip from his grasp as he dived over the tryline. ‘Self-indulgent stupidity,’ was the Telegraph correspondent’s unsympathetic assessment. Ten months later, though – and in the aftermath of the Ulster match – the same reporter was effusive: ‘Excellent Willie le Roux’.
It’s a fickle business, yet there is nothing capricious about the form and commitment demonstrated this season by Le Roux. He says he chose Wasps because of the club’s reputation for attacking, free-flowing rugby. He’s fitted seamlessly into a backline which, though now without Beale, contains the likes of Dan Robson, Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Christian Wade, and next season will see the All Black Lima Sopoaga’s arrival.
Yet for a man whose career was stalled in its early days by concerns he was neither big nor physical enough, it’s a try-saving tackle on La Rochelle’s rampaging hooker Pierre Bourgarit that stands out as a moment that characterises Le Roux’s quality. Bourgarit, who will surely play for France soon, burst down the touchline, handed off Robson, sat Gaby Lovobalavu on the seat of his pants and brushed off Joe Launchbury like swatting a fly, only to be cut down metres short of the tryline by Le Roux’s textbook tackle.
In attack and defence, Le Roux has become a Wasps fans’ favourite. And at 28, he may just be entering his prime.
We can only hope the powers at SA Rugby recognise it.
– This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April 2018 issue is on sale Monday, 19 March.
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