Why Rassie kept his faith in Le Roux

Willie le Roux has revealed how the Bok coaches and teammates helped him overcome self-doubt after picking up an injury in the World Cup quarter-final against Japan.

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Le Roux spoke to JON CARDINELLI about his World Cup journey and how he was actually affected by some of the criticism that came his way as the competition headed into the business end.

READ: What’s in our latest issue?

Should 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.’

As it turned out, 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.’

*The full feature with Le Roux can be found in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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Photo: Getty Images

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Craig Lewis