Willie le Roux has developed into a better player than he was in 2013 and will be a massive asset for the Boks, writes RYAN VREDE.
Le Roux's team, the Cheetahs, have struggled, but the 24-year-old has thrived, exhibiting a broad repertoire of skills, including more astute decision making. He leads Super Rugby in carries and metres run and is among the best in clean linebreaks and defenders beaten. Those stats, however, don't reflect the entirety of the progression he has made this season.
Last year his X factor showed itself in bursts, now it appears it has become consistently part of what he does. You only need to recall the deft chip-and-collects, standing-start breaks or passes that could find a home at Cirque du Soleil for evidence of this. There are many examples to pick from. Most notably he is consistently executing what he envisions in his mind and doing it under pressure. This is the mark of the very highest calibre of player.
I'd venture an educated guess that the player we see now is largely a product of a successful first Test season, one in which he not only proved his aptitude, but thrived. Rookie Test players over the years have been consistent in telling me that once you win the respect of your team-mates and shake off the feeling of being an impostor in elevated company, your game kicks on to the next level. This appears to be the case with Le Roux. Now I'm among many who look forward to how that confidence translates into performance for the Springboks.
I don't fear the impact of second-season syndrome on Le Roux. Often players get worked out and nullified. My professional hunch is that he will adapt. The Springboks desperately need him to if their bid to unseat the All Blacks at the summit of the IRB standings is to succeed. He lends them the flair and unpredictability they don't have in abundance, while still having the skills to start within their tactical framework. Fears surrounding a vulnerability on defence and under the high ball have shown themselves to be without base. His tactical kicking game is more refined than it was in 2013 as well.
I'd start him at his preferred position of fullback, where the space and time on offer suits him. If I were Heyneke Meyer I'd also look to engineer opportunities for him to carry as often as possible. When you have a gambreaker of his standard, it makes sense to maximise his potential to do so. If he doesn't start at fullback he must run on as a wing ahead of JP Pietersen, whose return of 16 tries in 51 Tests challenges the perception of him as a vital player for the team.
I'm not naive. I'm fully aware of the pressure elite sides are able to exert on players of Le Roux's ilk. But I think he can not only survive this examination, but overcome it to play a key attacking role for the Springboks. Some believe he is best deployed as a sub. I can see the merits in that argument, particularly relating to his potential to trouble tiring defences in the last quarter. But I believe what he could give you as a starter trumps that argument.
Ominously, Le Roux has played non-stop for two straight seasons and is in the red zone as far as potential for catastrophic injury is concerned. Here's hoping he dodges that affliction for some time still because he has become an undisputed match winner.
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