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FEATURE Much-maligned Willie Le Roux has a lot more to give

Much-maligned Willie Le Roux has a lot more to give
4 months ago

Few would argue Willie le Roux has been the Bulls’ signing of the season, as Jake White’s resurgent side stormed into the top six of the United Rugby Championship and booked a home tie in the last 16 of the Investec Champions Cup. Even at 34, the double world champion has a lot more to give.

There are more explosive full-backs in South Africa, while Springbok incumbent Damian Willemse is one of the world’s top aerial exponents. According to the coaches and players, however, it’s Le Roux’s vision, communication and organisational skills which set him apart.

When he reported for duty in November, Bulls director of rugby White described him as an on-field coach with the ability to unlock the potential of those around him.

Since then, the Bulls have scored more points (294) and tries (40) than any other URC side. They racked up these impressive numbers despite playing one game fewer than other URC contenders and are just eight points adrift of leaders Leinster.

The Bulls’ performances in Europe have also turned heads. After thumping Saracens 27-16 at Loftus Versfeld, they went down by a single point in Lyon. A convincing 31-17 win against Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate was followed by a 46-40 victory over Bordeaux-Begles in Pretoria.

While defence remains a work-on, the Bulls have taken giant strides in attack. The backline is stacked with x-factor players such as Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Johan Goosen, and yet it’s fair to say Le Roux has become the unit’s most important player.

Willie Le Roux
As a two-time World Cup winner, Willie Le Roux will go down as one of the greats (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It’s a statement which might jar with fans. Over the past six years, Le Roux divided opinion, with every mistake scrutinised and magnified on social media. Meanwhile, his off-the-ball contributions, assists and timely defensive interventions have gone largely unacknowledged.

Le Roux defied his many critics to help the Boks win the 2019 World Cup final against England. Afterwards, I asked fly-half Handré Pollard to explain why the veteran was so influential over the course of that campaign. I took the same question to coaches Jacques Nienaber and Mzwandile Stick, and they all came back with the same answer.

Whereas try-scorers are routinely celebrated, players who create the space or provide the final pass are often ignored. Pollard and his coaches cited examples of Le Roux exploiting that space and throwing that final pass to Makazole Mapimpi or Cheslin Kolbe.

Within the team environment, there is a healthy appreciation of his talents. Rassie Erasmus’ belief in him was rewarded in 2019, while Nienaber reaped the benefits of backing the old timer between 2021 and 2023 – a challenging period for the Boks which yielded a series win against the British and Irish Lions and another World Cup triumph in France.

Willie has so much experience, and when he speaks, the rest of us listen, because we’re all trying to learn as much as we can from him.

Manie Libbok

In the months leading up to that tournament, the Le Roux effect shone brightly. Senior statesmen such as Siya Kolisi, Pollard and Duane Vermeulen didn’t hesitate to highlight his value. The less established players revealed how hard he worked to upskill his teammates.

“Willie has seen it all; he’s a legend of the game who has a lot to teach someone like me regarding the tricks of the Test-match trade,” said 20-year-old Moodie. “We’re all looking for an edge, and he’s really helped me with regards to studying opponents and following certain cues, to the point where you almost anticipate what will happen next.”

Manie Libbok was promoted to the Bok setup at the end of 2022, and like Moodie was also encouraged to play to his strengths.

“Willie has so much experience, and when he speaks, the rest of us listen, because we’re all trying to learn as much as we can from him,” Libbok said.

“He’s helped us a lot in terms of the way he’s communicated on the field and encouraged strong decision making. I think that went a long way toward us eventually clicking on that tour [the Boks thrashed Italy and England in the last two matches].”

Willie Le Roux
Willie Le Roux has ensured a respectful handover of the Springboks’ No 15 jersey to Damian Willemse (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Willemse was one of the stand-out performers at the World Cup. And yet, when selecting their matchday squads for the enormous knockout fixtures, Erasmus and Nienaber always made space for Le Roux on the bench.

He was the sole back replacement for the final showdown with the All Blacks. The coaches named no specialist scrum-half, no out-and-out fly-half and no back-up goalkicker to Pollard. It was a rousing illustration of their faith in Le Roux, and the impact he could make.

The call was justified. Le Roux shared the decision-making load with Pollard and Faf de Klerk, and amplified the team’s threats. Willemse went well over the first 60 minutes, but as the ‘championship minutes’ approached, Le Roux’s game management came to the fore.

“Willie has always been the best in terms of coming over to me when I’m at my most fatigued, tapping me on the back and encouraging me to get ready for what comes next,” Pollard explains.

The public give him a hard time, and we sometimes laugh at what gets said or shared on social media, because it’s so wide of the mark. I cannot say enough for what he does in lifting the team exactly when we need it.

Handre Pollard

“The public give him a hard time, and we sometimes laugh at what gets said or shared on social media, because it’s so wide of the mark. I cannot say enough for what he does in lifting the team exactly when we need it.”

After the 2019 glory, Nienaber spoke about using Le Roux to mentor the next generation of South African full-backs. Le Roux found another gear and proved he was not ready to pass the baton. Another World Cup has come, and been claimed, and he continues to motor. We shouldn’t be surprised to see him line up against touring Ireland in July.

We’re living in the most competitive era of Test rugby peppered with back-three superstars. The prolific Will Jordan could shatter All Blacks scoring records. Beauden Barrett is already one of the greatest of all time. Damian Penaud spearheads a special northern-hemisphere contingent including Ange Capuozzo, Darcy Graham, Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan, James Lowe and Duhan van der Merwe.

It’s hard to remember when the Boks last enjoyed such in depth in this area. The combination of Le Roux, Kolbe and Mapimpi shone in Japan and against the Lions. Willemse and Arendse have forced their way into the starting line-up, while a youngster such as Moodie is a mainstay of the wider squad.

Willie Le Roux
Le Roux has brought a sense of calm to the multi-talented Bulls backline (Photo by Phill Magakoe/Getty Images)

Others are knocking at the door. Aphelele Fassi and Warrick Gelant played for the Boks in the last four-year cycle, while Goosen, Suleiman Hartzenberg, Gianni Lombard, Wandisile Simelane and Leolin Zas were deployed by the South African A side during the same period. Aphiwe Dyantyi, the 2018 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, is back in the mix after serving a four-year ban for doping.

Former Bok wingers Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds featured prominently for La Rochelle during their back-to-back Champions Cup wins. The uncapped Tyrone Green has been one of the most consistent performers for Harlequins, while Lions wing Edwill van der Merwe’s is another fine attacking prospect and ex-Shark Thaakir Abrahams is pulling up trees with Lyon.

The Boks started to show signs of attacking progress in late 2022, and should continue this trajectory in 2024 and beyond. They won’t be short of players with the ability to finish.

Finding the right balance, of course, is key. Accomplished game managers such as Pollard and Le Roux may well be needed to pull the strings in the months ahead.

Comments

6 Comments
B
Bob Marler 147 days ago

Only Andre Joubert has been a better Bok 15 than WLR in recent memory. And he will eventually be recognized as a Bok great.

Amidst much noise from his Perennial detractors - who often can’t give much more reason for disliking him than - “I just don’t”.

He’s a better 15 than Barret. That’s for sure. and links up/pivots with the 10 masterfully.

Defense. Sure. A problem at times. But if he helps score more tries than he lets in, and coordinates from the back like he does, he’s done his job.

I hope he gets his 100 caps.

S
Shaylen 148 days ago

Willie drifts brilliantly into space and creates space for others. He sees gaps quickly and exploits them well. He is a playmaker in a team that does not play that much so when they play the eyes are on him and so the highest order of accuracy is expected from him. He has been a gem and while his skills and attributes are on the wane the brain keeps ticking over and he is the ultimate team man who adds amazing value.

b
by George! 148 days ago

I hate this guy, but I've got to admit he's bloody good and you have to keep your eyes on him.

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