From zero to hero

Willie le Roux is proof of the dangers of prejudging a player based on limited facts, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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A treacherous year has deprived us of any Springbok rugby in 2020, but it hasn’t prevented a spotlight from being shone on some memorable storylines.

In the Springboks’ Chasing the Sun documentary, fascinating stories flowed thick and fast, but to me, there was one which was particularly revealing and served as an important lesson for ‘supporters’ of the game.

It was a storyline that revolved around Le Roux, and which quickly became a bit awkward for the numerous Springbok fans who were so quick to criticise the veteran fullback as the World Cup progressed.

Particularly ridiculed for his error-strewn performance in the quarter-final against Japan, a host of critics felt it would be justified to drop Le Roux for the final matches of the World Cup. Le Roux himself said he went to Rassie Erasmus on the team bus and told the coach he would understand if he wasn’t selected.

As the story goes, Erasmus simply smiled and said: ‘You’ll play, don’t worry!’

Ultimately, Erasmus once again revealed he possesses the EQ of a world-class coach, knowing what many armchair critics didn’t: that Le Roux was a ‘Strand hond’. To explain, this was a fascinating term that popped up on more than one occasion during the documentary, and it was one of immense affection.

In the Springbok set-up, to say someone has ‘hond’ or ‘dog’ in them is to say they have the spirit of a warrior.

It’s these character attributes that are viewed as the most-valued currency by the Springbok management when it comes to selection, with Le Roux boasting a fortitude and fighting spirit that was ingrained in him through his upbringing in unfashionable Strand in the Western Cape. Hence the term ‘Strand hond’.

It was something that allowed Erasmus and the Springbok coaches to continue to put their trust in Le Roux even as less-informed critics from back home called for him to be dropped. As Jacques Nienaber put it when handing out Le Roux’s match-day jersey before the final: ‘Willie, I trust you with my life.’

In this context, there was a major lesson to be learned from passing judgement without being armed with all the facts, as highlighted when episode four of the documentary revealed what Le Roux had gone through.

Unbeknown to many, the fullback had suffered serious nerve damage to his shoulder after colliding with towering loose forward Pieter-Steph du Toit at the start of the semi-final against Wales.

Watching on from the coach’s box, Erasmus can be heard stating that Le Roux simply has to vasbyt, while the fullback himself has since explained that he didn’t have any feeling in his left shoulder from the 10th minute onwards.

As Le Roux battled to catch and pass throughout match, and while fans back home screamed at their TV sets in frustration, the ‘Strand hond’ gritted his teeth and played through the pain.

‘I didn’t want to show Rassie that I’m weak, that I drop my team, that I give up quickly,’ Le Roux shares. ‘I play for my country but I was also scared that I could have done something wrong at a certain time and we could have been out of the World Cup,’ he adds with real emotion.

To me, this was a fascinating insight into the person and the player, and how they can be so negatively impacted by criticism that many feel professional players are immune to.

‘It can get tough and lonely sometimes,’ Le Roux admits. ‘People will attack your family and ask “why is he playing so badly, what’s going on with him?”’

Yet, Erasmus saw something more in Le Roux, and it’s why the Bok coaches produced a compilation of his influential play, which they showed the entire team before the World Cup final. It was about subtly building up the confidence of a player, who would then go on to produce a composed and classy performance in the title decider.

It’s a good news story that, for me, will always stand out from a challenging year, and which highlighted the dangers of sometimes prejudging a player who, in this case, actually went from zero to hero.

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Craig Lewis