Willie le Roux will play an important attacking role for the Springboks at the World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It was the game Willie le Roux will never forget. A career-defining match when the mercurial fullback proved beyond any doubt that he belonged at Test level.
The occasion in question was the Springboks’ opening encounter of the 2014 season, against Wales at Kings Park.
For those lucky enough to have been there, most recollections are likely to revolve around arguably one of the best individual performances seen in recent times. For Le Roux, who possessed the Midas touch, everything simply turned to gold on that unforgettable evening in Durban. During the first half alone, he helped create two tries and scored a superb solo effort of his own, to virtually single-handedly tame the Welsh dragons.
It was a classy cameo that prompted Bok coach Heyneke Meyer and Welsh counterpart Warren Gatland to suggest Le Roux was the best fullback in the world at the time. And it’s those lofty heights the 26-year-old will be hoping to reach once again at what is set to be his first World Cup.
‘That’s the game I dream about having every weekend,’ Le Roux tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It was one of those matches where everything goes right, when the bounce of the ball just goes your way. That was a major highlight for me. It was the game when I really felt comfortable at Test level.’
That performance, and Le Roux as the man who has almost solely been backed in the No 15 jersey since 2013, symbolise how the Boks have evolved during Meyer’s tenure. Although far from the finished product, the Springboks are no longer a one-dimensional force on attack, and Le Roux remains the weapon of choice at fullback with his vast array of skills.
‘I’ve always been allowed to express myself with the Boks,’ Le Roux says. ‘Heyneke has told me that if I’m not making mistakes, he knows I’m not playing my game. The point is that I’ve got the freedom to try things, and if I make mistakes, that’s OK. But there are obviously structures to our game, and it’s also important to play within those.’
When Meyer selected Le Roux to make his debut in the opening Test of the 2013 season, the Bok coach caught many by surprise. Meyer was still in the midst of staving off public criticism that he was a conservative coach, but the selection of Le Roux flew in the face of that perception.
Here was a talented young player who had caught the eye as a standout performer for some rather unfashionable sides. First with Boland (in the Currie Cup First Division), and then Griquas (in the Premier Division) and the Cheetahs (in Super Rugby).
It was Le Roux’s consistently outstanding performances for the Cheetahs during the 2013 Super Rugby season, in which time he scored six tries in 17 matches as the Bloemfontein side progressed to the play-offs for the first time, that paved the path to his Bok inclusion.
Le Roux hasn’t looked back since, having featured in 28 Tests since his debut against Italy, starting in all but two.
‘When I went on to the field for my first Test, I was so emotional that I didn’t line up in the right place,’ he reflects with a laugh. ‘Bryan [Habana] came over and had to point me in the right direction.
‘During those early days at the beginning of my Bok career, I just wanted to run and get the ball in my hands. But Heyneke identified a few areas of my game I needed to work on, specifically my catching of the high ball, my kicking and tackling. That’s stuff I continue to work on.’
From the highs of 2013 and 2014, Le Roux endured a relatively frustrating start to this year, as he battled with form and fitness at various stages during the Cheetahs’ unsuccessful Super Rugby campaign.
Yet there were signs he was getting back to his best during the opening two matches of this year’s Rugby Championship, which saw him set up a try against the Wallabies with a typical moment of magic, while he also finished off a fine try against the All Blacks.
‘I’m still not entirely satisfied with my game,’ he admits. ‘I wasn’t able to play all that much Super Rugby this year as a result of injuries, so I’m just grateful I was afforded the opportunity to get some game time [in the Rugby Championship], and to really try to make that No 15 jersey my own.’
And injury permitting, Le Roux is set to fill this all-important position at the World Cup.
‘We feel confident as a team, heading into the tournament,’ he says. ‘We’ve played some brilliant rugby at times, and it’s some of the best rugby I’ve experienced recently. So for me, it would just be an incredible honour to be the No 1 fullback at the World Cup.’
Le Roux has also defied some of his doubters by managing to counter-balance his natural attacking instincts with a more pragmatic approach in northern hemisphere conditions.
‘We know what the conditions could be like in the World Cup, and there are games that will be wet and muddy,’ he says. ‘But the game we want to play can’t be entirely influenced by those conditions; it’s all about decision-making.
‘You need to be able to adjust your game and style of play accordingly. There are occasions when you do need to kick a bit more, but there is also a time to attack and run the ball. We know we need to strike that balance.’
And as the magic man who possesses the ability to create something out of nothing, Le Roux remains a crucial cog in the Boks’ World Cup wheel.
‘We realise the responsibility we have,’ he acknowledges. ‘We can see how much our results mean to the supporters, and I can tell you there’s no greater desire than to bring back the World Cup for the people of our country.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine