Willie le Roux has grown into a player who has the potential to be a big attacking asset for the Springboks, writes RYAN VREDE.
There were question marks surrounding Willie le Roux’s aptitude for Test rugby in 2012. He’d shone in Super Rugby in a manner that demanded he be tested at international level. He was among the tournament’s best for metres made, clean linebreaks and defenders beaten, a notable accomplishment when you consider the majority of the game’s best attacking players are involved in the tournament.
Yet the list of South African players who’ve dazzled in Super Rugby and then tanked in elevated company is extensive. Le Roux wouldn’t be exposed as an impostor, though. He danced, jinked, sprinted and hot-stepped his way around Australasia, shone on home soil, then capped an impressive rookie year with a solid effort in Europe.
He’d ticked the required physical, technical, tactical and, most tellingly, mental boxes and emerged as the find of the Test season, which, given the depth of emerging talent in Heyneke Meyer’s squad, was a feat of appreciable significance. He’d not only survived, but excelled, again featuring prominently in the main key performance areas on attack.
This was significant on a number of fronts. Prior to his appointment, Meyer had consistently expressed his concerns about small (relative to the giants that occupy Rugbyland) players in Tests. Meyer’s reservation was rooted in the importance of winning the gainline battle.
Little ‘uns just couldn’t match bigger ‘uns’ potency in the tackle, and this, the group think went, was not a gamble worth taking.
Le Roux wasn’t found wanting in this facet of play (when he didn’t simply run past defenders), and Meyer conceded to me that he had reconsidered his stance on players of Le Roux’s ilk.
‘I used to think there’s no room for smaller backline players in Test rugby, especially in the back three, but over the past couple of years that view has changed,’ Meyer said. ‘You still have to be special to make up for what you lack in size, and Willie is among some special smaller players coming through.’
Le Roux has succeeded where Gio Aplon and Brent Russell, who he modelled his game on, have failed, and in doing so has eased the path to the Springboks for potent pygmies to come. Critically, he has shown himself to be more than a one-season wonder in Super Rugby.
After round 12, no player had run further with the ball, only two had carried more, and only five had made more clean linebreaks
His performance curve has continued to climb despite the Cheetahs’ struggles this season. After round 12, no player had run further with the ball, only two had carried more, and only five had made more clean linebreaks. Furthermore, his tactical kicking game (a strict requirement of Meyer’s) continues to improve.
Most notably, his X factor seems to be showing itself with greater regularity and ease. With a successful Test season under the belt, this should perhaps be expected. Le Roux would have taken some confidence from his ability to meet and, at times, exceed the required standards to make sure he earned the trust and respect of his coach and team-mates. This confidence is reflected in his play, which has increasingly featured moments of impossible brilliance – whether they came in the form of a chip-and-collect over a fast-advancing defensive line, a show-stopping offload in a tackle where there is seemingly no other option but to go to ground, or leaving defenders stranded from a near-standing start.
The 2014 Test season will hold new challenges for Le Roux. For one, the Springboks’ opposition would have seen a greater range of his attacking and defensive repertoire and planned to nullify him accordingly. Second-season syndrome has been terminal to the careers of numerous Springboks, but Le Roux gives you the impression he’ll negotiate that challenge comfortably.
Indeed, he could become a key player as Meyer looks to develop an attacking game that will finally account for the All Blacks, the only elite side in the game the Springboks are yet to beat. For long, certain sections of the media and public have lamented the team’s perceived predictability and rigid structure. Closer examination, certainly under Meyer, would expose this perception as flawed, but it would be fair to say the Springboks are some way off matching the standard-setting All Blacks’ broken-field dynamism and the consistency with which they cut the gainline from structured play.
Le Roux won’t be singularly tasked with the responsibility to grow these areas of their game. He is, however, gifted with a skill set that eludes most of his team-mates. If Meyer is able to engineer it so these skills are consistently engaged, he would take a significant step towards his goal of making the Springboks the best side on the planet, and keeping them there.
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine