The suggestion that the Springboks should move on from Willie le Roux as their incumbent fullback is grossly premature, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Le Roux is no stranger to criticism and doubters who have questioned his role at the highest level.
The most well-known story is when Le Roux himself approached Rassie Erasmus on the eve of the World Cup final to say he would totally understand if he wasn’t selected against England.
Le Roux had been battling a shoulder injury sustained in the World Cup quarter-final, and a couple of glaring errors had sparked widespread ire and outrage back in South Africa.
In response to Le Roux, Erasmus firmly reminded him that there was no question over his selection, while a video was later created and played during a team meeting, which shone a spotlight on the key role the fullback had played in a host of Springbok matches.
He would also go on to produce a much-improved performance in the World Cup final, with previous errors very quickly forgiven as the Springboks powered to victory in the title decider.
Once again, Le Roux was an integral member of the Bok team that claimed a historic 2-1 series win over the British & Irish Lions earlier this year but, quite suddenly, he has found himself again in the firing line during the Rugby Championship.
Critics were particularly gaslit by his forgettable first-half performance in this past weekend’s clash with the All Blacks, and it’s only because the Boks went on to snatch a win that some of the vitriol has been dialed back.
Make no mistake, Le Roux did produce three howlers: dropping one kick-off cold, which ultimately led to a New Zealand try. There was also one horribly handled high ball that awkwardly bounced off his head. And a weak tackle attempt with Rieko Ioane shrugging Le Roux off his back before setting up a try.
With such errors leading to scoreboard punishment, it was understandable that Le Roux came in for fierce criticism and was eventually replaced at half time.
However, a closer look at that first-half display from the Springbok also shows several Le Roux involvements which were entirely positive. Among other contributions when stepping into a playmaker role, he kept the Boks moving forward on more than one occasion with superb left-footed kicks into space.
Le Roux is still the cog around which so much of the Springboks’ game revolves and, while he hasn’t been in his best form, there should be no doubt about him retaining the No 15 jersey for the big Tests on the end-of-year tour.
I’ve repeatedly written that Aphelele Fassi is the natural successor to Le Roux at fullback, and I would expect his introduction to Test rugby to be expedited over the next year.
Frans Steyn was sensational when he came off the bench to replace Le Roux this past weekend, but every indication is that he is still perfectly suited to a utility impact role as a substitute in the second half.
Perhaps what Le Roux has needed more than anything else is simply a bit of strong competition to push him out of his comfort zone, and I’d suspect the cameo from Steyn, and the presence of Fassi, will do just that.
Le Roux shouldn’t start every game on the November tour, and it would also be good to see Warrick Gelant pushing for national selection again soon, but there is no reason to suggest a compete rethink is needed when it comes to the No 15 jersey.
There is so much that Le Roux still offers the Springboks. He is the primary communicator in the back three. A second playmaker when needed at first receiver. He offers a valuable left-footed option. And his role in providing key assists on attack is second to none.
That’s not to say Le Roux should just be backed blindly. Steyn has proved again that there are other options. Fassi is biding his time, and certainly deserves some international game time in his favoured position.
But, at 32 years old and with 70 Tests of experience to his name, Le Roux is the Bok incumbent at fullback for a reason. That hasn’t changed.