Willie le Roux must earn a recall to the Boks in order to add some much-needed experience to the back three in June, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Before even finishing that opening sentence, there’s a sense of anticipation around the howls of dissent that are likely to follow. Le Roux was always a player who divided opinion among South African rugby followers, with his mercurial approach to the game proving to be both his greatest strength, and often his most infuriating weakness.
Back in 2014, Le Roux was regarded as one of the best fullbacks in world rugby and earned a nomination for the World Rugby Player of the Year award. A couple of years later, and he was off to Wales, with very few armchair critics lamenting his departure.
It was a sentiment that spoke volumes. For every moment of Willie magic, there was a growing frustration over his high error rate and ill-judged offloads that provided equal measures of dazzle and despair.
After a largely forgettable season with the Sharks in 2016, there appeared to be a common consensus that the effervescent former Cheetahs star had begun to fade into the Test rugby abyss. As it is, the last of Le Roux’s 41 Test appearances came in the Springboks’ historic first-ever defeat to Italy on the end-of-year tour in 2016.
That result served as an inauspicious farewell for Le Roux as he headed out of the South African rugby spotlight and into the English Premiership to play for the Wasps. From the hard fields of Kimberley to the wet-weather conditions of Coventry, it was a long way from home.
Yet, by all accounts, it’s brought the best out of Le Roux. With such northern hemisphere conditions requiring a focus on aerial skills and a strong kicking game, the 28-year-old has become another living example of a player who has benefited from time at an overseas-based club.
This past season, Le Roux has particularly taken his game to another level, which saw him emerge as the leading player in terms of try assists (21) in the English Premiership – six more than the next best, Danny Care.
In addition, Le Roux was named the Supporters’ Player of the Year, with the maverick fullback praising the club for enabling him to ‘learn the true meaning of unconditional support’.
It’s surely now only a matter of time before he is back in the Bok mix. Form aside, new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will know that he needs to add some much-needed experience to a largely greenhorn back-three department in June.
Gone are the days of veterans Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen steadily occupying the wings, with the likes of Pat Lambie available to slot in at fullback.
Instead, Warrick Gelant looks to be the front-runner to deservedly claim the No 15 jersey for the three-Test series against England, while Erasmus will have to choose between talented but inexperienced wings such as Sbu Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Makazole Mapimpi and Ruan Combrinck.
Of that lot, Combrinck is the most experienced with just seven Tests caps to his name. Considering this is likely to be in a backline with a new-look centre and halfback pairing, it becomes increasingly clear that the experience of Le Roux cannot be overlooked.
This is not to deny Gelant the opportunity of starting at fullback, but rather for the young Bulls star to learn from a stalwart such as Le Roux, who also has a far greater understanding of the English players that will do duty in South Africa next month.
Le Roux and Gelant are both more than capable of playing on the wing, while there is always the possibility of the two interchanging positions during certain game situations if need be.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that one of the major stumbling blocks during Allister Coetzee’s tenure was as a result of a vastly inexperienced back three who had very few gnarly Test veterans to turn to for support. It was an error in selection judgement, which should not be repeated.