Willie le Roux’s form in the loss against England at Twickenham made it clear that the Springboks have some big calls to make in 2022, writes ZELIM NEL.
“It’s easy to look good playing for Boland against the Stormers because you’ve got nothing to lose,” said Allister Coetzee after Le Roux had shredded the Stormers’ defence in a 2011 Super Rugby pre-season match at Newlands.
Operating at flyhalf, the freestyling 21-year-old picked apart Jacques Nienaber’s defence with ease. At the time I was puzzled by Coetzee’s reaction to the incisive performance of a player deemed not good enough to make the Stormers squad.
In hindsight, Coetzee was right. As was Rassie Erasmus, who initially told Le Roux he wasn’t good enough to play for the Stormers, which resulted in the player joining the Cheetahs in 2012 and thriving in Bloemfontein.
Like Boland of a decade ago, the Cheetahs don’t measure success on wins and losses and so the City of Roses was the perfect flowerbed for a spritely magician like Le Roux because every loss on the ledger could be balanced by a special pass or a thrilling chip-and-collect.
But the Roses that Le Roux faced at Twickenham on Saturday grow in the less forgiving climes of Test match rugby and it is here where the veteran playmaker continues to blow hot and cold after 72 Test matches.
Only 19 Boks have ever earned more Test caps than Le Roux and yet his performances are still patently tormented by self-doubt.
Watching Le Roux play fullback is what one imagines it would be like watching Steven Kitshoff pack down at No 8 in a tactical ploy to beef up the scrum by adding an extra prop. And that’s precisely what Erasmus and Nienaber have done with Le Roux – adding a second flyhalf to the backline to mitigate Handre Pollard’s direct style and laboured distribution.
But for every opportunity Le Roux gets to accelerate on attack – and his prodigious talent was on display in reading the England defence before releasing Siya Kolisi up the right touchline on Saturday – there are multiple instances in every match where his positional weaknesses are tested and exposed in the kicking game.
Le Roux’s psyche makes him innately more vulnerable to doubt as expectations increase, so he was always going to wrestle with maintaining self-assurance in do-or-die Test rugby. But the bottom line is that he is a flyhalf and by deploying him out of position the Boks have put his shortcomings in the spotlight and chipped away at the one thing he relies on to perform at his best – confidence.
Confidence is one thing Frans Steyn has in abundance, as evidenced by the tubby 34-year-old trotting on to casually rescue the world champions multiple times this season.
Another advantage he has over Le Roux is that he is a fullback, once again showcased by his poise under the high ball and natural inclination to identify space in the backfield and exploit it with booming kicks.
Le Roux’s selection at fullback is hitched to the total investment in Pollard at flyhalf and the shortcomings of this arrangement are evident whenever Elton Jantjies gets a go, putting speed on the ball in a role that makes Le Roux’s redundant.
Erasmus and Nienaber are all-in on the gambit of a ‘second playmaker’ to the point that they’ve already lined up another flyhalf for fullback conversion.
It’s difficult to think of a flyhalf prospect in the Republic who can run, pass, kick and tackle with anywhere nearly the same level of aptitude as Damian Willemse, but instead of using parts of this season to develop him as a challenger to Pollard’s otherwise unopposed 10 jersey, the Boks have sent him down the same path as Le Roux.
Erasmus and Nienaber are proven winners. Moreover, they won the last World Cup and then beat the British & Irish Lions with Pollard and Le Roux starting at flyhalf and fullback. But they’re also smart enough not to miss the point that at Twickenham the Boks were beaten by Marcus Smith, 22, and Freddie Steward, 20, playing behind a rookie front row in a losing pack.
Conversely, Pollard and Le Roux have spent all of 2021 playing behind the world’s most potent pack of forwards, and the Boks have repeatedly needed to be rescued by the bench.