Willie Le Roux, playing with one shoulder, helped win the Springboks the World Cup in 2019. Come July, now fully fit, he will be huge in helping them follow up with a victorious British & Irish Lions series writes Oliver Keohane.
There is still a huge role for 31-year old Willie Le Roux to play within the Springboks set up. With 61 test caps to his name he is among the most experienced players left of Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup winning squad. During that World Cup-winning campaign, Le Roux came under enormous criticism from the South African rugby public for his perceived failings at fullback, and it was only in the adored documentary, Chasing The Sun, that South Africans were given insight into the importance of his Le Roux’s role, which stretched far beyond something as straightforward as catching high balls.
It was revealed during the documentary that Le Roux played through a serious shoulder injury, which saw him essentially unable to feel his shoulder for all three of the playoff games.
“I hurt my shoulder in the win against Japan and was still feeling the effects several days later,’ Le Roux said. ‘I went to speak to Rassie about the injury and the mistakes I’d made. I told him I would understand if he dropped me. I told him I would support my replacement and do all I could to help the team prepare for the next game.
‘Rassie’s response surprised me, he told me I was being ridiculous. Outside the camp, everyone was asking whether Willie le Roux was the right option at fullback. My coaches and teammates had no doubt, though.”
If there is anybody to trust when it comes to selection, few could argue against Rassie Erasmus. His backing of Le Roux is not just as a player who may or may not produce a magic moment – as is the case with many young and talented fullbacks world wide – but in the presence he holds at the centre of a deadly axis. Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe are wonderful rugby players, but they feed off the calm and experienced energy of Le Roux at fullback. This is not to say they wouldn’t function without him, but why fix a formula that isn’t broken?
As it stands, the last Springboks rugby we saw was winning rugby, and it saw Le Roux playing fullback. It remained winning rugby through his injury struggle, and it was emphatically winning rugby when by some feat of human adrenaline he produced a performance in the final that those with two functioning shoulders would not have been capable of.
There is so much that goes on in terms of structure, positioning and communication on the field that I feel we as fans often overlook because we are not in the thick of it. It’s easy to see a youngster momentarily dazzle at domestic level and feel he is naturally next in line for the number fifteen jersey. But there is a reason Le Roux has remained the Springbok fullback through three coaches, six years and 61 test caps.
The prospects of Damian Willemse and Aphelele Fassi as fullbacks of the future are awesome, but why the rush? While Willie still has legs and is still performing, nurture in the young talent under his guidance. The presence of the youngsters will allow Le Roux an extra year of rugby, and the presence of Le Roux will allow for unmatched positional education for the youngsters at international level. Old enough is good enough, young enough is good enough, and the Springboks are lucky to boast both.
I back Willie, who had had time in Japan to excel in their professional league but also allowed his body a break from the brutality of the domestic leagues in Europe and South Africa.
WATCH: A reminder of Le Roux’s value