Damian de Allende must make the most of his starting opportunities in what should be a watershed tour for the 25-year-old, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It might feel like it’s been an age, but it was just two years ago that De Allende was named the South African Super Rugby Player of the Year and started six games at the 2015 World Cup.
During that time, De Allende was a popular crowd favourite, with his powerful ball-carrying ability and strong defence enabling him to establish himself as the rock in the Bok midfield.
Unfortunately, there’s been a period of relative stagnation since then. While there have been the odd glimpses of De Allende’s formidable physical capabilities, his impact has begun to somewhat tread into the dangerous territory of ‘one-dimensional’.
It’s left the door open for someone to finally lay claim to the No 12 jersey, and as the 2017 season rolled around, so Jan Serfontein orchestrated something of an individual rebirth as he emerged as the Boks’ most industrious back throughout the Rugby Championship.
Yet, in a quite remarkable act of employer generosity, SA Rugby has afforded Serfontein the opportunity to settle in at his new French club rather than pressing him into national duty for this end-of-year tour.
It’s left De Allende as the solitary specialist inside centre in the Bok squad, and the obvious selection to start his first Test of the year in Saturday’s clash against Ireland.
Indeed, at Thursday’s team announcement, Allister Coetzee reiterated that De Allende had his full backing, but spoke of the need for him to rise to the occasion and match the standards that have been set.
With 27 Test caps now under the belt, it’s a golden opportunity for De Allende to once again prove his credentials on the international stage, while making up for a bit of lost time.
For the Stormers midfielder, this tour could well be a career-defining one. By the time the 2019 World Cup arrives, De Allende should be at the peak of his powers, but it now remains to be seen whether he is capable of adding some subtlety and guile to his naturally direct and abrasive approach.
De Allende has size and strength on his size, but the game has also moved forward. Even a superstar such as Sonny Bill Williams has found that opposition defences are now prepared for his ball-carrying and offloading ability.
It’s led to recent criticism of Williams, but also driven him to up his work-rate and alter his game to add just as much value on defence as he does with ball-in-hand.
This end-of-year tour offers the platform for De Allende to also evolve his approach and begin to alter perceptions about his strengths that lie beyond just being deployed as a battering ram.
When fit and in form, De Allende’s running lines, eye for a gap and deceptive pace were what enabled him to regularly defy expectations. There should be no reason why he can’t do it again.
While De Allende would be expected to be backed for the duration of the tour, it’s Saturday’s Test that will really present the most intensive test as he lines up opposite powerful New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki.
Aki has come under the spotlight in Ireland this week as he gets set to make his first appearance for his adopted country after qualifying on residency grounds, which remains a particularly touchy topic in that part of the world.
There is pressure on him to silence the debate with a strong performance, and there is no doubt that De Allende will particularly have his work cut out for him on defence.
Ultimately, though, it’s the next few weeks that present De Allende with the means and motivation to set his still young career back on its expected trajectory.
Photo: Anne Laing