Damian de Allende made a statement in the early rounds of Super Rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Consider the odds. The Stormers went into their first match of the 2015 Super Rugby competition without a host of senior players. They’d lost seven out of eight on the road in 2014, while the Bulls had lost just one at Loftus Versfeld in 19 games.
For individuals like Damian de Allende, there was the added pressure of competing against a Bulls backline stacked with Springboks. The odds against a Stormers win were considerable. You could have forgiven a young side and a player in his position for failing. You certainly wouldn’t have expected De Allende and company to treat such an occasion as an opportunity.
Ultimately, the Cape outfit did exactly that. The Stormers smashed a Bulls team with 13 Boks by 12 points. De Allende was named Man of the Match for his physical display in midfield, one that doubled as a claim for national selection.
But he wasn’t done yet. De Allende was just as influential in the Stormers’ win over the Blues in Cape Town. In the subsequent clash against the Lions at Ellis Park, he made a try-saving tackle at the death to ensure the Cape side hung on for a narrow victory.
De Allende has made a statement during the early rounds of Super Rugby. It’s a statement that could echo through to the World Cup.
At 1.89m and 101kg, De Allende has the frame to play Test rugby. And yet it’s been his attitude as much as his physique that has earned him a place in the Stormers and Bok squads. He didn’t give up on rugby when he was left out of the Western Province Craven Week side in 2009. He had to fight hard for recognition, and eventually an opportunity with the senior team.
Similarly, he hasn’t given up on a regular berth in the Bok side despite featuring in just three Tests in 2014. A knee injury denied De Allende a Test debut against Wales last June. He started in the two Tests against Argentina in the Rugby Championship, but would have to wait until the final game of the season for his third cap.
De Allende’s coaches at the Boks and Stormers believe he has taken the disappointment and frustration in his stride. If anything, as the performance against the Bulls in round one of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament indicated, he is more determined than ever to prove a point.
‘Damian was unlucky last year,’ says Bok attack coach Johann van Graan. ‘He was injured, and then didn’t play much on the end-of-year tour. However, we as coaches were impressed to see how he responded. His head never dropped. He gave everything in training.
‘Sometimes it takes a while for a younger player to realise that the non-playing squad members can influence the team with their attitude. Damian kept going, even though he knew his opportunities would be limited.
‘The thing that impresses me most about Damian is his will to succeed. He also has a very clear idea of what he wants: he knows where he’s come from and where he’s going. He’s come from a background where he had to fight, and he’s brought that attitude through.’
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer shares Van Graan’s belief that De Allende is a great prospect, and that he will play many Tests for South Africa in future. What the 23-year-old is determined to prove to Meyer and company is that the future is now, and he should be on the plane to England this September.
‘My main goal is to go to the World Cup later this year,’ De Allende says unequivocally. ‘I am fully committed to the Stormers at this stage, and I know I can improve in just about every area. But that World Cup is in the back of my mind.
‘It was special to be part of the Bok set-up in 2014. There were some frustrations with injuries, and I didn’t play much on the end-of-year tour. I set myself very high standards and I want to play as much as possible. That said, I was grateful for the experience, and learned a great deal. I know my chance will come if I keep pushing myself.’
In the Test against Wales last November, Bok captain Jean de Villiers went down with a serious knee injury, and was replaced by De Allende. It was a bittersweet moment for De Allende, as De Villiers had been a mentor to the youngster at the Boks and the Stormers.
Even now, De Villiers attends Stormers team sessions regularly. While he cannot take part in training, and is unlikely to play again this year, De Villiers is still committed to helping De Allende improve as a player.
‘Jean is at the High Performance Centre every day, pushing us to achieve high standards,’ says De Allende. ‘I remember when I started out at the Stormers, I wasn’t the best defender. My decision-making and distribution weren’t great. Jean helped me a lot with my all round game, and, of course, with my composure on game day.
‘He told me I needed to own my position, I needed to know what I wanted to achieve and then work hard to make it happen. When you do that, you go on to the field with confidence, and it becomes easier, not only for yourself, but for those who are playing next to you.’
In 2012, Allister Coetzee backed a then 20-year-old De Allende to start in the Currie Cup final at Kings Park. It proved a masterstroke, as De Allende’s combative performance went a long way towards WP securing their first domestic title in 11 years.
De Allende has added a lot more to his game in subsequent seasons, and according to Van Graan and Ricardo Loubscher, another member of the Bok coaching staff who has a close eye on this year’s Super Rugby tournament, the best is yet to come.
‘He has a fantastic future,’ says Van Graan. ‘His all-round ability is quite astonishing. He’s big, strong, and quick, and we saw how those attributes came to the fore in the big derby between the Stormers and the Bulls at Loftus. He carried well and made a huge impact at the advantage line. Damian’s contact skills are very good.’
Loubscher notes that De Allende, who was a soccer player in his school days, is also starting to put those kicking skills to good use.
‘He really deserved that Man of the Match award at Loftus,’ says the Bok backline coach. ‘Decision-making is always a big focus and he put that massive kick into the left-hand corner. That’s what we want to see, not necessarily more running or kicking, but more good decisions and execution.
‘I’m sure he’s going to create headaches for the national selectors, but that’s what you want.’
– This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine