Mariette Adams and Dylan Jack debate whether the Springboks should persist or desist with Willie le Roux at fullback for their semi-final against Wales on Sunday.
Jack says keep the faith in Le Roux:
Le Roux has not been perfect in the World Cup. He, like many of his teammates, has made mistakes that have not gone unnoticed by the South African public. In many circles, he is Public Enemy No 1 when it comes to the discussion of who should start in Yokohama this weekend.
However, I simply don’t see this as a time when the Boks can afford to simply drop one of their most experienced and valuable players. Le Roux will win his 60th Test cap and play his 10th World Cup match if he starts against Wales. Along with this, he has played six times against Wales between 2013 and 2018.
Neither Cheslin Kolbe nor Damian Willemse boasts this level of experience. Though Kolbe has started games for Toulouse at fullback, he is still relatively new to playing in the position when it comes to Test rugby. One also has to keep in mind that the way Toulouse employ their fullback will be very different to the Springboks. Asking Kolbe to adapt to an entirely new role, with its own expectations and requirements on defence and attack, in under a week is simply impossible.
While he is the brightest prospect of his age group, it would be unfair to expect Willemse to cope with the pressure when it comes to the biggest game of Rassie Erasmus’ tenure.
Looking at Le Roux himself, he still has plenty to offer besides experience. He has an understanding with both Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk that enables him to quietly slip into the flyhalf channel and play a defence-breaking pass when the Boks need it. Le Roux tends to pop up on attack exactly when the Boks need him and his tactical kicking has actually not been as bad as his critics are suggesting. Simply put, Le Roux is slightly off-form, but even in this period, he has produced plenty of assists for those outside him.
Unfortunately for those demanding Le Roux’s head on a spike, I simply cannot see Erasmus taking what would, undoubtedly, be a massive risk in such a crucial game.
Adams says drop Le Roux:
Let’s talk about Willie.
Anyone who follows the English Premiership closely will tell you Le Roux was absolute dynamite during his two-and-a-half-year stint at Wasps. That Le Roux – though not error free – had all the elements to his game. He was confident enough to come into the line as first and/or second receiver, to beat a penultimate defender on his outside shoulder and draw the last one to set up scoring opportunities for his teammates.
That Le Roux scored and assisted tries for fun and, importantly, the Le Roux then was a rock under the high ball.
His form for Wasps is what earned him a Bok recall from coach Rassie Erasmus. The player himself has said as much. Unfortunately, what Erasmus saw and what Erasmus got were two vastly different players, form-wise.
While Le Roux’s defence has always been questionable, his influence on attack – which is the hallmark of his game – has waned and his aerial skills are non-existent.
In the quarter-final against Japan, he did not win one aerial duel. And, there was one instant when he was so thoroughly beaten to the high ball that all he could do was deliberately slap it out of the Japan player’s reach and into touch.
Well, that game is over and done with and Wales now lie in wait for South Africa. The Boks simply cannot afford a similar performance from Le Roux. The Wales back three – Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams – are high-ball specialists. Williams, in particular, has to be one of the top three international fullbacks when competing in the air. And, for that reason I fear Wales could well exploit Le Roux’s mistakes better than Japan did.
Erasmus does have three other options, though. Start Damian Willemse, Frans Steyn or Cheslin Kolbe at the back. I’m leaning towards either of the latter two.
Willemse can do the job but his inexperience, compared to the other two, counts against him. Steyn is a valid option because he boasts the most experience of the quartet in question. A former World Cup winner, Steyn’s tactical kicking game is second to none and his ability to land booming kicks (penalties and drop kicks) at goal from well inside his own half will force Wales to alter their tactical kicking game and make them wary to concede penalties regardless of where they are on the field.
Then we have Kolbe, who has been one of the Boks’ best players at the tournament. To imply that shifting Kolbe to fullback has a defensive risk attached to it is simply not true. He plays at the back more often than on the wing for Toulouse and has done excellently. If Kolbe plays No 15, that opens the door for S’bu Nkosi to earn a rare start on the wing, and he is no slouch on defence, either.
Le Roux is a classy player and will undoubtedly bounce back in the near future. But for now – based on what we’ve seen at this tournament – it’ll be a safer bet to trust Steyn or Kolbe and Nkosi to adapt and do the job in the semi-final than it is to trust Le Roux to catch a garryowen.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets