CRAIG LEWIS finds out how Springbok fullback Willie le Roux rediscovered his mojo.
Willie le Roux is playing the game he loves with a smile on his face once again. Back in 2014, Le Roux was at the peak of his powers as he started 12 Tests for the Boks on the way to being nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award. Over the next couple of seasons, he continued to play a prominent role for the Springboks, which included starting as the first-choice fullback at the 2015 World Cup.
After that tournament, Le Roux took up his first short-term stint playing in Japan, before making the move from the Cheetahs to the Sharks on his return to South Africa for the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Yet, somewhere along the way, a little bit of the characteristic on-field ‘Willie magic’ went missing. Suddenly, the trademark sniping breaks and deft offloads weren’t quite coming off. By the end of 2016, Le Roux knew he needed a change, and he wasn’t the only one.
‘I really enjoyed my time at the Sharks, and it was a move aimed at improving my game, but in 2016 I felt I wasn’t playing my best rugby,’ Le Roux tells SA Rugby magazine at the team hotel. ‘I wasn’t having fun on the field any more, and my mom says she can always tell I’m having fun when she sees me smiling.’
The Boks’ struggles that year are also well documented as they suffered eight defeats in 12 Tests, with Le Roux starting at fullback as they plunged to a first defeat to Italy, on the end-of-year tour.
By then, it had already been confirmed that Le Roux would be heading to Wasps after one more stint in Japan, leaving many South African supporters to wonder whether they had perhaps seen the last of the mercurial fullback in Springbok colours.
‘When I started at Wasps, I did find it difficult to adapt to the different conditions, but the more you play there the more you realise what you have to do in terms of your positioning and how to vary your pace,’ Le Roux reflects. ‘It’s all about the small things like your footwork, handling and distribution that I learned a lot about.’
In many respects, Le Roux’s first season in England provided a rude awakening as he became accustomed to playing in inclement conditions, while at times falling into the trap of trying to force proceedings.
‘It was a challenge because the ball is often wet, and you have to be really strong under the high ball,’ Le Roux admits. ‘I had to learn a lot about getting the balance right between attacking, knowing when to kick, and whether it’s on to have a go. Earlier in my career, I felt it was always on [for me to attack], but the experience at Wasps has helped me to improve that decision-making.’
Although Le Roux remained eligible for the Boks in 2017, he found himself out of the national reckoning as former coach Allister Coetzee instead turned to Andries Coetzee at fullback. In fact, when the Springboks faced France at Ellis Park in June last year, Le Roux turned up in the rather unique position of watching the team from the stands with a beer in hand.
As the story goes, Le Roux was spotted by a couple of Springbok players as the team did a lap of honour after their 35-12 victory, but it proved impossible for the teammates to reach each other. When reminded of this experience of watching the Springboks as a fan, Le Roux says it was a moment that reignited his passion to earn a national recall.
‘I didn’t think my rugby was up to standard to play for the Springboks last year, and it was during my off time that a mate and I decided to go to the Ellis Park Test. Sitting there in the stands, seeing the guys play and knowing everything that goes with it, it was something that lit a fire in me because you realise that’s where you want to be.’
Le Roux returned to Wasps with a renewed sense of purpose and desire to enjoy his rugby to the fullest. Over the course of the 2017-18 season, the former Griquas star duly rediscovered his mojo as he emerged as the Premiership’s top-ranked player for try assists (21 from the 22-game regular season).
‘I definitely rediscovered my love for the game during that time,’ Le Roux says. ‘All of a sudden you’re scoring some tries and contributing a few assists in a team that’s playing an exciting brand of rugby. When you’re outside the Bok squad, it makes you realise how much that jersey means because you never know when it will be your last Test.’
With Le Roux back in fine form and the Bok coaching reins having been taken by Rassie Erasmus, the pathway was paved for the fullback’s return to the national set-up. And as fate would have it, Le Roux would be back at Ellis Park almost exactly a year after watching the Boks from the stands. This time, though, he was lined up alongside his teammates to sing the national anthem.
The 29-year-old marked the occasion with an effervescent performance that helped inspire the Boks to a memorable comeback victory against England after they had initially fallen 24-3 behind. In fact, it was Le Roux’s 11th Test try just before the break that sent the hosts back into the lead, with his emotions plain to see as he celebrated with a couple of fist pumps to the badge on his chest.
‘That sort of stuff just happens; it’s not really like me to celebrate like that, but the emotions just take over when you’re representing your country and trying to make people proud who’ve always supported you. To be in action with the Boks, it felt like the first time all over again, and then to get that win under those circumstances really meant a lot. It felt like I was home again.’
That said, it became clear at the start of this year’s Rugby Championship that there would need to be a balancing act in terms of managing his game time and commitments between club and country.
Before the series, Wasps director of rugby Dai Young said they were pleased to see Le Roux achieving his Test ambitions, but he also hoped to have their star player back before the European season.
‘Rassie has been good to deal with and every player wants to play Test rugby if they have that opportunity,’ Young said. ‘If there was a different regime in charge of South Africa, then I don’t know if Willie would have wanted to continue. The World Cup in Japan next year is a massive drawcard. If this was the first year of the four-year World Cup cycle that may not be the case.’
Although Le Roux is loving every minute back in the Bok colours, he also acknowledges that he owes a lot to Wasps for helping him return to Test level.
‘Wasps have been supportive of my ambitions to play for the Boks, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am. Wasps have done really well as a club, and it’s all credit to them for allowing me to play my type of rugby and affording me the freedom to enjoy it.
‘Past experience has taught me to appreciate every opportunity with the Boks, and I can only take it game by game, but I definitely want to be involved in another World Cup after we came so close last time, losing in the semi-finals. The ultimate goal and dream is to lift the World Cup.’
It’s at this point in the interview that we are interrupted by two young boys, asking to pose for a photo with Le Roux. Without a second thought, he jumps to his feet, wraps his arms around them and encourages their grateful father to snap away.
After all, Le Roux has experienced the pain of looking in at the Boks from the outside. Just to be in the mix again is cause enough for him to have a smile at the ready.
‘I’ve realised now that you never want to let go of that green and gold jersey,’ he says. ‘I’ve been through rough patches, but I think I’ve learned from that and I’m just trying to be the same old Willie.
‘You always want to play well, but I’m really feeling confident and enjoying my rugby again.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.