Damian de Allende is determined to take his game to the next level and become a more complete No 12, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Damian de Allende takes a moment to gather his thoughts. We’re sitting in the lobby of a plush hotel in Newcastle that overlooks the River Tyne. Two days have passed since South Africa smashed Samoa 46-6.
Two days have passed since Springbok captain Jean de Villiers was ruled out of the World Cup. It’s plain to see De Allende is still coming to terms with the news that his skipper and mentor will play no further part in the 2015 campaign.
‘It was an emotional moment when he got us together to tell us he was out,’ De Allende says. He looks away briefly. ‘I still get emotional when I talk about it.
‘For me, Jean was not just a great leader but also a great person and friend. When I was growing up, Jean was one of my heroes. I still look up to him. He helped me a great deal when I first joined the Stormers. He’s also had a hand in my development since I started playing for the Boks.
‘It’s difficult to lose someone like that,’ De Allende adds, before adopting a more determined tone. ‘But we know we have to carry on, and we know Jean is backing us all the way. We want to make him and the country proud.’
De Allende certainly made a statement in that pool match against Samoa at Villa Park. The Boks as a collective produced a more convincing showing to run in six tries and secure the first win of their campaign. It was a fitting response after the shock loss to Japan only seven days earlier.
Many of the South African players and coaches described the defeat to Japan and the days that followed as the most difficult of their careers. De Allende didn’t feature in the match-day 23 in Brighton, but shared in the pain and disappointment that followed. It took no small measure of strength and resolve to bounce back in the second pool game against Samoa.
‘That was special,’ De Allende says. ‘Everybody pitched up. Everybody was focused on the same thing. Against Japan, it felt like nobody was on the same page. The guys were uncertain about a few things, such as the game plan. Against Samoa, there was no such indecision. We all pulled in the same direction.
‘I don’t think people appreciate how big those Samoan players are. To be honest, it was quite scary to stand next to them in the tunnel before kick-off. They were physical throughout the game, but so were we. We dominated from minute one. The Samoans flew in with some big hits, but we dealt with it. And that gave us some confidence going into the next two pool matches.’
Coach Heyneke Meyer was under pressure to drop De Villiers for the game against Samoa. The Bok captain had started against Japan at No 12 and, like many of his teammates, battled with the pace and intensity of the Brave Blossoms. Meyer selected De Allende at 12 for the match against Samoa and moved De Villiers to 13, with Jesse Kriel dropped to the bench.
There was pressure on De Villiers to respond, but De Allende also had something to prove. He dazzled in the 2015 Super Rugby and Rugby Championship tournaments with his explosive ball-carrying and finishing. His defence, however, was a worrying weakness.
De Allende missed more tackles than any other player over the course of the Super Rugby tournament. Only Argentina missed more tackles than the Boks in the Rugby Championship. The opposition targeted the Boks’ inexperienced midfield, and enjoyed success.
De Allende’s performance against Samoa, however, was a statement. Meyer praised him for his attitude and improvement. The player himself felt it was a good start to the campaign.
‘Defensively, it was a massive step up,’ he says. ‘It felt great to make my World Cup debut, especially against a team like Samoa. It’s nice to test yourself against a big, physical team like that. They push you to the limit.
‘After the Rugby Championship, I took a look at my defence. It wasn’t up to standard. I was standing too high when making the hit, and wasn’t getting the desired result. I’ve had to drop my height in the tackle.
‘I believe I’ve improved. In saying that, I know it’s a work in progress. I also want to improve my distribution skills. I want to put away the guys on the outside a lot more. I don’t set goals in terms of numbers or anything like that. It’s about preparing well and being ready to capitalise on opportunities when they arise.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine