Damian de Allende makes the biggest impact at inside centre, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Damian de Allende has played in the midfield and on the wing for the Stormers, but backline coach Robbie Fleck has no doubt where he should settle.
‘His best position is 12. He gets his hands on the ball early, and can expose the space out wide with his passing skills or be a destructive ball-carrier. I know 12 is his preferred position and we as coaches have a duty to play him there. He’s among the top two or three inside centres in the country and he’s only going to get better.’
De Allende played 12 for the first time at any level when he was selected for the 2012 Currie Cup final against the Sharks in Durban. With Marcel Brache, who had started Western Province’s semi-final against the Golden Lions, carrying a slight niggle, and Jean de Villiers injured, the Province coaching staff backed the 20-year-old.
‘We wanted a big ball-carrier in the middle, because of the physical Sharks defence, and it was the best decision we’ve ever made,’ says Fleck. ‘He got us over the advantage line and was also immensely physical on defence.’
At 1.89m and 100kg, De Allende’s size is his biggest asset, but he’s more than a one- dimensional basher. His pass is ‘the best in the country’ according to Fleck. He can step off both feet, has a good kicking game and gets stuck in at the breakdown.
It’s hard to believe De Allende wasn’t selected for the Western Province U18 Craven Week team, but playing for Milnerton High, an unfashionable Cape Town rugby school, counted against him. He only started playing rugby in Grade 8 – football had been his sport of choice at Milnerton Primary – when his friends convinced him to give it a go.
‘I didn’t know the laws, so I wasn’t that interested at first, but in Grade 10 I started to understand the game more and enjoy it,’ he says.
De Allende was selected for the 1st XV at the end of his Grade 10 year and went on to play 50 matches for them, mostly at outside centre. His most memorable moments include his first hat-trick for the 1st XV, against Tygerberg in 2008, and Milnerton’s Burger Trophy win (for medium schools) in 2009.
‘I kicked a late penalty to give us a 13-11 win against Schoonspruit in the semi-finals, and in the final against Brandwag, we scored two tries in the last eight minutes to win 27-26,’ he recalls.
When he was in his matric year, De Allende was approached by 1st XV coach Hein Kriek, who persuaded him to attend Western Province U19 trials. It went well, and he was soon wearing the blue and white hoops.
‘The first time I saw Damian play was when he was at outside centre for Western Province U19 against the Leopards in Potch,’ recalls Fleck. ‘He was a tall, skinny kid. He had great skills having come from a touch rugby background, and showed lots of deft little touches in midfield.’
'He’s among the top two or three inside centres in the country and he’s only going to get better’ – Robbie Fleck
Kriek was also an assistant coach at Cape Town club Hamiltons, and he spoke to head coach Anton Moolman about De Allende. Moolman then told former Western Province coach Alan Zondagh, who was scouting for his Rugby Performance Centre (RPC) in Riebeek West, that the player had potential and Zondagh offered him a place.
‘We had 40 to 50 boys in our group that year  and Damien was among those with the most potential,’ says Zondagh. ‘He still had a lot of work to do, but he had raw talent. Like now, he could play anywhere in the backline, but I knew his best position was inside centre.’
De Allende says attending the academy benefited him as a person and as a player.
‘It was good for me to get away from home and make my own decisions. I also got to improve my conditioning. When I played for the Province U19s I never had the chance to go to the gym or do extra fitness because I was travelling to Stellenbosch.’
Travelling to Riebeek West was also difficult at times, so De Allende used to train at Hamiltons, who selected RPC players for their U20 teams. It was there that he was spotted by then UCT coach Kevin Foote, who offered him the chance to play Varsity Cup rugby in 2012. He would play six matches for them, all on the wing.
‘I hadn’t seen Damian since he had played for Western Province U19 and I saw he’d got a bit bigger and more solid,’ says Fleck. ‘He also showed his running ability with UCT and worked well in space.
‘Damian then played a game on the wing for Western Province U21 and we [the coaches] decided to call him up to the Currie Cup squad. But we didn’t necessarily see him as a wing – I thought he was more of a midfielder and a 12 in particular. He was pretty destructive when he carried the ball and had such a strong, beautiful pass that we felt we could utilise him in the midfield.’
De Allende’s Currie Cup performances, most notably in the final, saw him selected for the Stormers squad and he would play 14 Super Rugby matches in 2013, including eight starts. While he wore the No 12 jersey seven times, he also played outside centre, left and right wing and fullback after coming off the bench.
‘It’s a very big step up from Currie Cup to Super Rugby,’ says De Allende. ‘The level of intensity is greater, you have less time on the ball and your decision-making must be faster. You have to be on your A-game all the time.’
De Allende has produced his A-game often in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and it was no surprise when he was included in the 36-man Springbok squad for the June internationals. His physical approach is perfectly suited to Test rugby, with his versatility an added bonus. Sadly, a knee injury sustained against the Sharks in Durban on 31 May prevented him from making his Bok debut.
After 16 rounds of Super Rugby, De Allende had started all the Stormers games – eight at inside centre and six on the wing when midfielders Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh were both fit.
De Allende admits 12 is his preferred position.
‘The biggest difference between playing inside centre and on the wing is the way you have to defend. I enjoy 12 more because you are in the thick of things. I like to get stuck in.’
Fleck believes it’s good for De Allende to play both positions at this stage of his career.
‘It definitely helps in his all-round ability as a rugby player. Most quality centres have had stints on the wing, which helps them to understand and read the game a bit better on defence and attack.’
The 22-year-old will also become a better player as he gains experience and improves certain aspects of his game.
‘Damian can work on his kicking out of hand and recognising space, like Frans Steyn does when he exposes defences with those little kicks in behind,’ says Fleck. ‘He also needs to keep working on his decision-making – when to attack and when to pass.
‘His preferred option is to have a go at the opposition, because he likes to dominate, but he will be a more complete player when he has the ability to put the players around him into space. That will come with time.’
Damian de Allende was an excellent high-school cricketer, earning selection for Western Province U18. But when he was picked for the Province U19 rugby team, in his matric year, he had to decide which sport to pursue after school.
‘I had career opportunities in both, but chose rugby because it’s a shorter game and there’s more gees [spirit],’ he says.
De Allende opened the bowling for WP U18 but says, with a laugh, that he was ‘more medium-fast than fast’. He took ‘four wickets for 30-odd’ in a recreational match against Boland, while his best figures for Milnerton High were 5-4 in a Twenty20 match.
He also started to work on his batting when selected for the 1st XI and made a couple of fifties.
– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine