Willie le Roux has played an underappreciated, but nonetheless vitally important role for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Should Willie le Roux continue to start at fullback? Fans answered this question with a series of unflattering memes in the wake of South Africa’s patchy win against Japan last year. Meanwhile, the media focused on several handling mistakes and called for Le Roux to be dropped before the World Cup semi-final against Wales.
Le Roux started to ponder the question himself. Not long after the quarter-final, the emotionally battered veteran went to see Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus for a heart-to-heart talk. Perhaps the time had indeed come to step aside.
‘I hurt my shoulder in the win against Japan and was still feeling the effects several days later,’ Le Roux says. ‘I went to speak to Rassie about the injury and the mistakes I’d made. I told him I would understand if he dropped me. I told him I would support my replacement and do all I could to help the team prepare for the next game.
‘Rassie’s response surprised me,’ Le Roux continues with a chuckle. ‘He told me I was being ridiculous. Outside the camp, everyone was asking whether Willie le Roux was the right option at fullback. My coaches and teammates had no doubt, though.’
It was a sliding-door moment. If Erasmus had allowed Le Roux to sit out, the Boks may not have beaten Wales or England thereafter. Le Roux would not have been present to make several big calls and plays, and South Africa may not have returned home with the Webb Ellis Cup. As it was, Erasmus went out of his way to make the team – and some of the travelling journalists – understand what South Africa have in Le Roux: an individual with the abilities to amplify the collective.
‘We tried not to let the external noise bother us,’ says Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick. ‘That started as soon as we lost to the All Blacks in the opening game. Some people questioned our gameplan and whether Willie deserved his place.
‘Willie sets high standards for himself and was not happy with his performances. It says a lot for his commitment to the team that he was willing to relinquish his place. Rassie, however, made it clear he was the man for the job. We had some great young backs in the squad, but we knew that a player of Willie’s experience could be the difference in a big game.
‘Given what happened in the playoffs and how well Willie played in the final, it’s safe to say Rassie’s decision and the group’s faith in Willie was well and truly vindicated. It was great to see him overcoming all the obstacles to end the World Cup on a powerful note.’
Handre Pollard points out that most people fail to see, let alone appreciate, how influential Le Roux can be over the course of a contest.
‘Willie doesn’t get enough credit for the work he does off the ball,’ says the Bok flyhalf. ‘Maybe people only see the end result. Cheslin Kolbe will step through the line and Makazole Mapimpi will finish in the corner. So often, however, Willie is fracturing defences with those little cross-kicks or delayed passes. You go back and look at the tries we scored at the World Cup, and almost every one has been influenced by Willie in some way.
‘Willie plays like a flyhalf a lot of the time,’ Pollard continues. ‘I know better than most that the flyhalf is under immense scrutiny. When you get something right you’re the hero and when you drop the ball you’re the villain. Willie made some mistakes but he also did a lot of good things that went unseen by people outside the camp. They preferred to focus on the negative aspects of his performance.
‘The truth is he’s absolutely indispensable to our cause. We’ve always believed that he’s a player who can deliver when the heat is on. We’d seen it before over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. We had every reason to expect another clutch performance in a game like the World Cup final.’
Erasmus made significant changes to the gameplan when he became Bok coach in 2018. The approach required more than one playmaker on the field, and it’s for this reason he brought Le Roux – who was unused by the Boks in 2017 – out of the international wilderness.
‘Willie is in the top two in terms of creating tries for the side,’ says Stick. ‘What really sets him apart is his communication. From the first game in 2018, he stepped forward as a guy who understood our approach and had the ability to execute it. He developed to the point where he became another voice for the coaches on the field of play. What helped, of course, was his close relationships with his teammates. That translated into something special in the big games.
‘Makazole and Lukhanyo Am have walked a long road together, but don’t underestimate the bond that exists between Makazole and Willie. Willie did so much for Makazole in terms of helping him and positioning him at the World Cup. That combo of Makazole, Cheslin and Willie developed into a potent one for South Africa, and while Makazole and Cheslin received due plaudits, Willie was the key.
‘Who creates the tries?’ Stick asks rhetorically. ‘Perhaps people don’t see that or don’t ask themselves that question.’
Pollard and Le Roux enjoyed some success at the Boks in 2014 and 2015. When Le Roux returned to South Africa in 2018 after spending some time with Wasps, however, his teammates noted the change in his game.
‘The halfbacks and the fullback work together closely in terms of organising the backline,’ says Pollard. ‘He’s an extra set of eyes for me and Faf de Klerk. He knows where the space is on the field, and has the skill to step up and make the big attacking and kicking plays himself.
‘That allows me to play with more freedom. I like to run hard at the advantage line and sometimes I can’t get back into the formation until one or two phases later. Most teams nowadays want that extra decision-maker who can slot in at first receiver when required, someone who can lend the team some direction while the No 10 is on the deck.’
Le Roux evidently enjoys talking about the more technical aspects of the game. As he goes into the details about opposition running lines and body positions, and how he tries to identify the opposition’s cues and tells from his position at the back, one begins to understand why he is rated so highly by those in the know.
‘The great thing about Rassie and Jacques Nienaber is that they encourage you to make decisions on the field,’ he says. ‘They want you to play the situation and take responsibility. That was the big difference for me compared to what I had previously experienced at the Boks.
‘Nowadays, I’m trying to put teammates into scoring positions or make important defensive plays. I’m trying to create space for Makazole and Cheslin on the outside. I’m telling them when to shoot on defence and when to hold back for the kick. I’m telling them and the other backs what I can see from my position at the back.
‘This is a role I’ve grown to love and I’m grateful Rassie has backed me to fulfil it. On defence, Jacques has given me a clear message about what he wants. There is a lot of trust between myself and the coaches, and between myself and my teammates on the field.
‘It’s got to the point where I can shout at Cheslin and he’ll turn toward the threat without wasting a split-second to look around and assess the situation for himself. Makazole has so much speed, and I know that if I can straighten or hold on to the pass for just a second longer it will give him the chance he needs to disappear.’
Le Roux laughs when it’s suggested he had to move to the English Premiership to develop his attacking game. And who would have thought that Danny Cipriani, a flyhalf deemed surplus to 2019 World Cup requirements, would prove such a valuable mentor to one of England’s chief tormentors?
‘Danny would point out little things, such as how to plant and position your feet against a rush defence or how to adjust and straighten your run in the wider channels to create more space. We’re talking about subtle stuff but I found these small changes made all the difference to my game. Danny also had a great appreciation for where the space was behind the defensive line. It was a great education for me and when I returned to South Africa, I passed on the message to assist my teammates at the Boks.’
Le Roux delivered his finest performance in a Bok jersey in the 2019 World Cup final. While he made a couple of early errors, he bounced back to contribute on attack and defence in the latter stages.
‘Rassie made it clear to us that one mistake would not define us in a clash of this nature. At no point were we allowed to drop our heads.
‘I wasn’t going to let one or two mistakes stop me. I went into the final knowing and believing I was a more balanced player than when I debuted in 2013. At the same time, I wanted to show the world I still had the same energy and passion that defined me as a youngster. I gave absolutely everything. The game went by in a blur and before I knew it we were lifting the World Cup.’
This story is far from over. Le Roux will continue to help and mentor the outside backs in the coming seasons, and he will in all likelihood go into the series against the British & Irish Lions as the first-choice fullback.
‘I’m definitely hungry for more,’ he says. ‘That Lions series will be as big as a World Cup and nobody will want to miss out, which means the competition for places will be fierce.
‘I watched a rerun of the 2009 series recently and started to think about what we may be looking at in 2021. The passion and size of those crowds … it’s going to be one helluva experience. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure I don’t miss out.’
LE ROUX’S 2019 WORLD CUP HIGHS AND LOWS
VS ALL BLACKS, YOKOHAMA
24th minute: Le Roux misses a tackle on Ardie Savea in the lead-up to George Bridge’s try.
48: Contributes two deft touches in the lead-up to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s try.
VS ITALY, SHIZUOKA
6: Le Roux fires a long ball to Cheslin Kolbe on the right-hand touchline. The wing goes on to score.
25: Kolbe fails to return the favour when he throws a wayward pass to the fullback. Le Roux knocks on with the tryline at his mercy.
45: Le Roux carries the ball twice in the same movement. He chases De Klerk’s box kick and wins the ball back. The Boks score, but the try is disallowed due to an obstruction.
58: Le Roux unleashes Lukhanyo Am down the right wing, and then follows in support. Am passes to Le Roux and the fullback chips into space. Du Toit wins the race to the ball, but can’t complete the final pass to Le Roux a few metres from the tryline.
68: Le Roux identifies the space behind the defensive line and chips for Makazole Mapimpi to chase. The wing collects the ball and scores.
VS JAPAN, TOKYO (QUARTER-FINAL)
35: Le Roux joins the line and frees up Damian de Allende. The move breaks down in Japan’s 22 when Am fails to find Mapimpi on the left-hand touchline.
62: Le Roux claims a contestable kick. Japan have done their homework and put South Africa under pressure in this area.
70: Handre Pollard breaks the line and finds Le Roux in support. The fullback sees the defence sweeping across the field, and sums up the situation before handing the pass to Mapimpi. The wing has work to do, but the timing of the pass allows him to shift through the gears and score.
VS WALES, YOKOHAMA (SEMI-FINAL)
17: Le Roux gives away a penalty for being offside.
57: Pollard breaks the line and takes play deep into Wales territory. At the next phase, Le Roux pops up at first receiver. De Klerk sees Le Roux switching the direction of attack from right to left, and finds him with a pass. Wales appear to have sufficient numbers in the line, but Le Roux uses his feet to take two defenders out of the equation. He times his pass to perfection, allowing De Allende to attack the space on the front foot.
VS ENGLAND, YOKOHAMA (FINAL)
6: Le Roux gets the ball in a good attacking position, but gets nailed by Sam Underhill and loses possession.
25: Le Roux takes the ball to the gainline and throws a floating pass to Mapimpi on the outside. The wing races away, but the pass is ruled forward.
32: The Boks withstand an assault on their line for more than 20 phases. Towards the end of the movement, England fling it wide with the hope of exploiting South Africa’s flank. Le Roux races out of the line as the ball drifts towards Anthony Watson. He catches the England wing and completes the leg tackle. England have few numbers at the breakdown. The ball flies back to an uncertain Owen Farrell. Le Roux, who has got back into the line after tackling Watson, races up once more to hit the England captain. Farrell is isolated but manages to secure possession some five metres behind the gainline. England don’t go forward again in the movement.
66: England launch a high ball on Le Roux. The fullback completes the catch under pressure, and the Boks secure possession at the ensuing breakdown. From there, they move the ball to the left to set up Mapimpi for a try that takes the game away from England.