Willie le Roux has learned to play the situation at the highest level, writes JON CARDINELI.
‘Give me the ball!’ screamed Willie le Roux as the Springboks turned the Welsh over and launched a counter-attack. The big screen at the Mbombela Stadium reflected the improbable equation. The Boks needed 14 points in eight minutes to win the game; two converted tries against one of the best defensive teams on the planet. If ever there was a time for a Bok fan to leave their seat and begin an early and disgusted trek back to the car park, it was at that instant. And yet not a soul in the Mbombela Stadium dared move. Evidently, they weren’t interested in the numbers involved or the laws of probability. Willie le Roux had the ball in his hands. It was a reason for even those most cynical of fans to believe a miracle was possible.
Afterwards, Heyneke Meyer and Warren Gatland were in agreement. Though on opposite sides of the result, the two head coaches concurred that what they had witnessed in the dying moments of that epic Test was nothing short of electrifying, and that the man who had sparked the Boks’ comeback was the best No 15 in the world.
Le Roux had picked himself up after an indifferent first-half showing, as had the rest of the Bok team. The South African fullback had shouted himself hoarse during that final quarter of the contest, pleading with his teammates to give him the ball so he could make the telling play.
When the post-match euphoria had dissipated and the Bok coaching staff had an opportunity to reflect on the performance in a broader context, they marvelled at Le Roux’s temperament and what it could mean for the future of the team.
‘Willie’s thriving in those pressure situations,’ says Bok forwards and attack coach Johann van Graan. ‘We started to see it on the end-of-year tour, and then in those two big games against Wales. The pressure couldn’t have been greater, but Willie was calling for the ball, taking it upon himself to make something happen.
‘Sometimes you will have a talented player who disappears in those tough situations. Willie, however, wants to take control. It’s a very encouraging sign, as we have some more big games to come in this year’s Rugby Championship, later this year in Europe, and of course at the 2015 World Cup.’
Meyer and Van Graan speak about Le Roux as if he is still a work in progress. Indeed, while Le Roux made a promising start to his international career in June 2013, it was evident that he was a rough diamond that required some polishing.
Meyer and his coaching staff have worked tirelessly with Le Roux over the past 18 months with the aim of developing him into a more rounded player. The hard work started to pay off on the 2013 tour to Europe, where he turned in some game-shaping displays in conditions not conducive to his natural strengths. Further efforts in early 2014 have allowed the Bok fullback to take another step in his evolution.
‘When he arrived at the Boks, he already had the X factor,’ says Van Graan. ‘We can’t take credit for that. But what Heyneke said to him at that point was that he needed to evolve in terms of his decision-making. He needed to learn when it was right to run the ball, and when he needed to kick.
‘You can’t coach that quality Willie has, that vision. But what he has come to realise is that with the licence to roam and look for opportunities comes a responsibility. What we’ve also tried to utilise a lot more is that left boot of his. It gives us more options, whether we are exiting our own territory, or using the chip kick as an attacking weapon. That can make it more difficult for defences to prepare for our attack.’
'He needed to learn when it was right to run the ball, and when he needed to kick' – Johann van Graan
Some have suggested the praise for Le Roux is over the top. That said, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement considering the player’s progress over the past few months, and the insistence of his coaches that he will only get better with experience.
Le Roux’s success at the highest level is down to his work ethic as much as his rare talent. Under the tutelage of kicking coach Louis Koen, Le Roux has spent hours on the training pitch honing that left boot. Backline coach Ricardo Loubscher has worked with the fullback on his high-ball catching, while some individual attention to his defence has also paid off. Defence coach John McFarland reveals that Le Roux didn’t miss a single tackle over the course of three games in Europe, which is some improvement considering it was the fullback’s tackling that let him down in the Rugby Championship.
Over and above everything else, Le Roux has learned what it means to play the situation at the highest level. The player who debuted against Italy in the Boks’ first game of 2013 is a far cry from the player who featured this past June. This is good news for the Boks, and bad news for their opponents.
‘In my younger days, I tried to run way too much,’ Le Roux concedes. ‘It was also easier as defences were not as organised as they are at Test level. What I’ve learned since making my debut is you can’t rely on running yourself out of trouble every time, you have to be able to use tactical kicking to get yourself out of trouble too.
‘Having said that, poor kicking will be punished and that is why good attacking and defensive kicks are vital. It’s important to know when to kick and when to run. You have to be able to sum up what’s in front of you on the field, to play the situation.’
Le Roux did as much in the 72nd minute against Wales, confounding defenders and scoring the try that got the Boks back into the contest. A long spiralling pass then unleashed teammate Cornal Hendricks for what would have been another try had Wales fullback Liam Williams not tackled Hendricks without the use of his arms. Fortunately for the Boks, the officials awarded a penalty try, and thus ensured Le Roux’s vision resulted in reward.
It could be that Le Roux is asked to respond in another do-or-die situation later this year. The Boks are bent on winning the Rugby Championship title and claiming the No 1 world ranking. It’s likely the tournament will come down to the final match at Ellis Park yet again, and you wouldn’t bet against the result being in the balance in the dying minutes.
It’s in this scenario where Le Roux will need to call for the ball, to produce the play that leads to the winning result. You get the impression he wouldn’t want it any other way.
– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine