Damian de Allende is the best No 12 in world rugby. He will also be huge for a victorious Springboks Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
De Allende has been superb for Munster this season and he produced arguably his most influential performance for the club in the 27-3 derby win against Pro 14 Champions Leinster. De Allende inspired Munster to a first win in seven attempts against Leinster.
De Allende was always earmarked for great things internationally and his breakthrough year from pretender to contender for world’s best No 12 came at the 2019 World Cup. De Allende was consistently good all tournament, but he was exceptional in the semi-final win against Wales.
De Allende’s solo try broke open the game and proved to be decisive in the Boks advancing to the final in which they humiliated England 32-12.
There have been plenty recommendations made on social media as to who the Bok No 12 should be for the Lions series, but, if fit and available, there isn’t an option other than De Allende to start and Frans Steyn on the bench as protection for 12, 10, 15 and goalkicker.
It is fantastic to see De Allende so consistent and so impressive in the colours of Munster. He was always good when playing for the Stormers and Western Province, but not quite as consistent in delivering those stand out performances.
De Allende, against Leinster, was named Man of the Match against Leinster, with 58 running metres, 7 defenders beaten, 5 carries, two offloads, one try assist, 1 clean break, two turnovers won and seven tackles made.
In an article I wrote for Independent Media and IOL during the 2019 World Cup and published on 26th October, the headline read:
‘Doogz’ De Allende like a rabid dog again
The article read: Damian de Allende, very much like All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams, divides supporter opinion. But neither of the two divide teammate opinion.
The All Blacks players say it often: There is no more influential or professional player than SBW. The Springboks and Stormers players say the same thing of De Allende.
I thought De Allende’s World Cup quarter-final performance against Japan was his best in a Springbok jersey. Wow!
He was strong in the carry, clever with his offload, precise with his passing and absolutely brutal in his defending. He made 17 tackles and his impact was such that the Monday following the Boks 26-3 victory against Japan, a prominent Welsh rugby website short-listed De Allende as one of the five players of the World Cup.
He was the only centre nominated and he was described as the glue of the Springbok backline and as the individual most respected and feared in that backline.
De Allende over the past few years has copped so much criticism on social media that at one stage, post the 2015 World Cup exit, he also took to social media to slam the trolls and abusers of Springbok rugby.
De Allende, in the last year, has been colossal in a Springbok context, and it is because Rassie Erasmus always believed in him as a player.
Allow me to take you into Erasmus’s home and lounge, in November of 2017. He had, a week, earlier returned to South Africa from Ireland to take up the post of national director of rugby. Erasmus, myself, and former French international and Springbok assistant coach Pieter de Villiers, spent the day and evening watching England hammer Australia, the All Blacks edge Scotland and South Africa sneak a one-point win against France.
Allister Coetzee was still the Bok coach and Erasmus, speaking in his capacity as the newly appointed boss of Springbok rugby, identified the core of those 31 players currently at the World Cup. He explained where he felt the Boks were strong and also where they were weak and were perceived to be weak among the Northern hemisphere players and coaches.
Erasmus that night spoke about several players and positions and when we got to chatting about No12, he said Frans Steyn was a player who simply had to be in the equation when it came to the Springboks. Erasmus said No 12 was the best position for an older version of Steyn, but that he was so versatile he could play 15, 10 and even do a job at 13. The days of being a winger were no longer an option, he said with a smile and an affectionate reference to Steyn’s Man of the Match performance against Ireland in Dublin in 2006. Back then the 19-year-old Steyn played wing.
Steyn, added Erasmus, if willing and fit, would make his match-day squad every weekend. He would either start at No12 or be the ideal impact player.
Outside of Steyn, the name Erasmus mentioned was De Allende.
Erasmus, from his time as Director of Rugby at the Stormers, knew a youthful De Allende and now wanted to reconnect with him. He wanted to understand the player’s head space. He felt the stuff he was seeing and reading was a betrayal of what could define De Allende as a world class No12 and an integral weapon in the Springboks’ arsenal.
Erasmus spoke about the GQ covers, the modelling shoots and the softness of what he had seen in De Allende’s make-up.
‘He is not a private school boy (Keo). Neither was I. We are cut from a similar cloth. I need to see if he can go back to his roots, accept them, live them and deliver the mongrel that comes from an upbringing in which you fight for your place at the table. I need to work with him again and I need to see if he still has that edge.’
Erasmus, speaking Afrikaans, added: ‘As hy speel wil ek sien hy het nog Eter …’ Politely translated, you could say he wanted to see if De Allende had presence. On the streets, you’d never translate it with such tenderness. He wanted to see if De Allende still had dog in him. Could he be hardcore and a d@#s on the field when it came to fronting the world’s best and leading the South African attack?
Erasmus felt De Allende was presenting a face to the world which was at odds with his character.
“If he can find himself again, he will find that X-factor that can make him one of the best inside centres in world rugby.”
It would be more than 14 months before Erasmus, seconded to guide the Springboks to the World Cup in an expanded SA Rugby portfolio, would get into the mind of De Allende.
The player’s form in Super Rugby had been erratic and inconsistent. There were moments that reminded everyone of what he could be, but there were too many that had everyone screaming what he couldn’t be.
Erasmus wasn’t influenced by social media or those many analysts who felt De Allende couldn’t think, couldn’t pass and couldn’t be counted among South Africa’s best inside centres.
Erasmus always believed in De Allende’s rugby ability.
“He can pass, he can run and he can kick. He can also tackle,” Erasmus told me that night. “It is not his rugby that concerns me; it is his attitude and mental state.”
Fast forward to tonight, the eve of the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup semi-final, and Erasmus will be beaming because Steyn is among his match-day squad and De Allende is his starting No 12 jersey.
Both have delivered to a coach who never doubted their rugby pedigree, but challenged them on their desire to be in the Springbok team, and reinforced the narrative that what made you in your youth is what defines you as an adult.
Erasmus worked tirelessly to mentally ground De Allende and to nurture and cuddle Steyn. On both counts he succeeded, but he could only do so because both players went back in time to move forward and make this World Cup their time.
*And both De Allende and Steyn, in two different hemispheres, continue to be the two biggest match-day squad selections for the Boks No 12 jersey in the three-Test series against the Lions; a series I have the Boks to win 3-0.