By Mark Keohane
Damian de Allende, very much like All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams, divides supporter opinion. But neither of the two divide team mate 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.
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-lister 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 Springboks backline and as the individual most respected and feared in the Springboks backline.
De Allende over the past few years has copped so much criticism on social media, that at one stage, poste the 2015 World Cup exit, he even took to social media to slam the trolls and abusers of Springbok rugby.
De Allende, in the last year, has been colossal in a Springboks context, and it is because Rassie Erasmus always believed in him as a player.
Allow me to take you into Erasmus’s lounge room, 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 Boks 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 No 12, 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 No 12 or be the ideal impact player.
Outside of Steyn, the name Erasmus mentioned was De Allende.
Erasmus, who knew a youthful De Allende from his time as Director of Rugby at the Stormers, wanted to reconnect with De Allende. He wanted to understand the player’s headspace. He felt the stuff he was seeing and reading was a betrayal of what could define De Allende as a world class No 12 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 sic Eter, which translated to English would be ‘Mongrel’.
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 centre.
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 the eve of the Springboks 2019’s 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.
Both have delivered to a coach who never doubted their rugby pedigree, but challenged them on their desire to be in the Springboks 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 have done so because both players went back in time to move forward and make this World Cup their time.