Willie le Roux must be instructed to play with the freedom that was a trademark to his Super Rugby season with the Cheetahs. To shackle him in the Rugby Championship would be the equal of sacking him.
I’ve been as guilty as the next person to question whether Le Roux would be a liability or an asset in the more intense Rugby Championship matches against the All Blacks in New Zealand and the Wallabies in Australia. I have questioned whether Le Roux would be effective at Twickenham against England or in a tight one on a cold evening against France in Paris.
Yet the more I think about it the more guilty I have been of settling for a status quo that has produced more disappointment than delight.
I have always preferred the physicality and solidity of Jaco Taute and Frans Steyn as starting fullbacks. I have written often that Le Roux would be better suited to playing on the wing in tandem with a physically imposing fullback like Steyn or Taute. Alternatively, I have been of the belief that Le Roux could best serve the Boks in the role of a Super sub.
Steyn and Taute are both injured so that debate is on hold for now.
Le Roux is the form fullback and the reason he is in form is that he has been allowed to play with freedom of choice, within the framework of a regional structure.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer recognised this when he started with Le Roux in the June internationals and gave him the confidence to trust his natural instincts.
Le Roux, in an SA Rugby Magazine interview, said: ‘Heyneke told me he was looking for something new. He wanted me to play like I did for the Cheetahs. He didn’t want me to change.’
Applause all around Mr Meyer.
Hopefully Meyer has been as inspiring with his pep talks this week and not been spooked by the prospect of the next two months being the Rugby Championship and the opposition being New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
It is one thing to tell a player to have a go against Italy, Scotland and Samoa. It becomes a bit more complicated when playing teams of superior quality.
But the opposition should not influence Le Roux’s approach. Neither should it Meyer’s encouragement of Le Roux’s style of play.
There are question marks about certain aspects of Le Roux’s play and we won’t know the answers until he plays the All Blacks at Eden Park or fronts England at Twickenham and France in Paris.
We know that his kicking game is limited and that teams with very good tactical kicking games will demand a greater examination of his ball-in-hand decision-making.
We also know what he can do when trusting his natural attacking instincts and when allowed to roam from broken play and not limit his attack to predetermined 1st phase incisions into the line.
I initially shared the view of those who felt Le Roux needed to be more circumspect in the Rugby Championship and that part of his game refinement would be to add more convention to his make-up.
I still believe he has to refine his game and that his unpredictability can become his predictability, but in refining and maturing his game he must not compromise on anything because of a fear of making a mistake.
This is the Rugby Championship that Le Roux should be encouraged to have a crack, even if he makes mistakes doing so.
I’ve been consistent in who I rate in an ideal Bok backline. Le Roux has not been my starting option, but a player who I introduce into the game via the subs bench. Those who rate Le Roux as the X-factor ingredient have challenged my thinking on the basis that my ideal Bok backline has often played as a unit in the last five years and won nothing of significance and regularly lost to New Zealand and Australia.
Perhaps they are not as good as I think they are or perhaps the All Blacks and Wallabies are better than I think they are. That’s a debate for another time.
This issue – and the counter to my view – is to try something new. Give Le Roux a fair thrust, doing it his way. The Boks don’t often come second in the forward exchanges but it hasn’t always translated into a winning scoreboard or try-scoring dominance.
Le Roux, playing his brand of rugby in a No 15 jersey, could change that. We will only know if he is given the freedom to make his own choices and trust his instincts.
Ryan Vrede, on SA Rugbymag.co.za, cautions against unrealistic expectation when it comes to Le Roux’s performances in the Rugby Championship. I can appreciate Vrede’s reservation. I have also expressed a similar view.
But the more I looked at my view on Le Roux, the more it seemed like a defeatist one; one in which too much focus was on what he potentially couldn’t do and not enough on what I have already seen him do.
In light of this I’ve reassessed my view and now lead the chorus to free – and not shackle – Willie.