There is an obsession on social media in wanting to retire Willie le Roux as a Springbok. It is absurd. Le Roux is the best fullback to start for the Springboks, writes Mark Keohane.
Willie le Roux divides South African rugby public opinion in the same way Percy Montgomery did. What the two also have in common is that they are World Cup winners and both were influential in the Boks respective 2007 and 2019 tournament victories.
Montgomery, South Africa’s first Test centurion, was consistently second-guessed throughout his career, especially in the first 50 of his 102 Tests. It took a Springbok coach in Jake White to unreservedly back Montgomery as his starting fullback and number one goalkicker.
The rest, as White would tell you is history.
Rassie Erasmus and now Jacques Nienaber have the same faith in Le Roux and it would take a radical drop in form or injury for Le Roux not to be the starting Bok fullback for the bigger Tests of the year.
Nienaber, like Erasmus, has dabbled with Damian Willemse at fullback, but Willemse’s international future for now seems more as a utility super sub who can cover flyhalf, inside centre, fullback and wing. His skill sets also allows for a goalkicking option.
Willemse started at fullback against the Pumas in the Boks 32-12 win and experienced a difficult afternoon. It wasn’t that he played badly, but more that he tried too hard. He is a player desperate to prove he belongs in the Test arena and his starting performance lacked the impact of his cameo substitutions at inside centre this season.
I believe No 12 is ultimately where Willemse could be most effective in Test rugby, but for now his greatest value to the Boks is from the bench, when the likes of Damian de Allende and Le Roux are available. Frans Steyn played particularly well at inside centre against Argentina and I do see the national coaching duo still relying on Steyn as a starting option should De Allende not be available for the two big Tests against the All Blacks.
The Sharks fullback Aphelele Fassi started on the wing against Georgia and the Pumas and delighted with his finishing in both Tests. He is a natural who immediately looked at home in a Springbok jersey, but he is not the fullback choice ahead of Le Roux for this Rugby Championship.
I am expecting him to play a match at fullback or on the wing against Australia as the Bok coaches introduce him to Test rugby, but when the crunch comes Le Roux will be the player they pencil in at 15.
Fassi has X-factor and if anything, he may finish the Rugby Championship as having leapfrogged Sbu Nkosi as the next in queue should one of Cheslin Kolbe or Makazole Mapimpi be unavailable.
Erasmus, at the World Cup, and Nienaber in 2021 believe the strength of the Boks is not in a run on XV but in a squad that exceeds 30. They have built a lot of depth since taking charge in 2018 and it is a testament to the fact that they could beat the British & Irish Lions in the third and series deciding Test and then make 10 changes to the starting XV and beat Argentina 32-12 a week later and make 17 changes to that match-winning 23 for Saturday’s second Test against the Pumas.
Le Roux, to the coaches and the analysts, gets compliment after compliment. But on social media, he cops abuse.
He is a brilliant attacking player, who plays as a second flyhalf/playmaker and defensively is among the best in international rugby in how he reads the play and how he controls the defence of the back three as a unit.
He is also still only 31 years-old.
Le Roux, if he isn’t injured, will go to the 2023 World Cup and by that time he may join Montgomery as the second Springbok fullback centurion.
Fassi, at 23 years-old, will rock the international scene over the next few years, but not at the expense of Le Roux’s international career. This will be a case of the passing of the baton and not the result of Le Roux dropping the baton.
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