One of the most exciting aspects of the forthcoming weekend of international rugby is the chance to see Willie le Roux in action for South Africa against Wales.
The 24-year-old fullback dominated last weekend’s first Test in Durban, making three direct assists and scoring one try himself. Aside from those attacking feats, le Roux’s fielding of the high ball was immense.
While it was close to a complete individual performance, we didn’t see the Cheetahs player overly tested in terms of tackling and covering defence, so it would be fascinating if Wales were to ask more questions of him in that regard on Saturday.
South Africa are clearly a fearsome unit, with their maul, line-out, ball-carrying and directness heavily justifying their status as the second best nation in the official IRB rankings. Le Roux is adding a crucially incisive and clinical element to those foundation strengths, providing Heyneke Meyer with a game-breaking player who can reward his teammates’ physical dominance by creating scores.
The Stellenbosch native has clearly worked exceptionally hard on the individual skills within his game that needed refining and the results were evident last weekend as le Roux delivered a highly accurate performance.
His intelligent kick to set up Bryan Habana’s opening try was a particular highlight, perfectly-weighted and taking into account his wing’s searing pace.
Le Roux only kicked the ball a handful of times against Wales in the first Test, but each one produced hugely positive results for the Springboks. The well-judged effort above demonstrates the practice the former Boland Cavaliers man has put into his kicking game; despite travelling at a relatively high speed and coming under serious pressure from the defenders, he still manages to drop the ball straight and get enough height so it doesn’t run out of play.
This chip is something we have seen from le Roux countless times in Super Rugby, and he scored from his own kick later in the game against Wales. While he would probably admit that he got a fortuitous bounce on that occasion, Arnold Palmer’s “the more I practice, the luckier I get” quote springs to mind.
Le Roux’s clever chipping game, as in the GIF above, also highlights the vision he has. The 24-year-old _ looks_ for these opportunities; he has become proficient in scanning behind the front-line defence for space. Practising his kicking and learning to really see those spaces go hand-in-hand to a large extent.
Those same visual skills go into the next impressive feature of le Roux’s play; his habit of beating players one-on-one. We have previously touched on the ability of the best attackers to spot mismatches, and le Roux is a perfect example of that.
We see le Roux beating a forward (openside flanker Aaron Shingler) with his footwork in the clip above, using that beautiful and hard-to-imitate goosestep of his. The essence of the play is his targeting of a defender who le Roux knows he can beat for footwork and with a burst of acceleration.
Later in the game, the fullback got his head up and spotted hooker Ken
Owens in front of him and struggling. Again, the goosestep was produced, before le Roux burned to the outside of the Welshman, distracting George North just enough to make a two-on-two favourable enough for Cornall Hendricks to score.
The fact that le Roux has played at out-half at other stages of his career may be another factor in his ability to swiftly process the information his eyes are feeding him about the defence.
The wider channels allow him that extra split second of time in which to make a decision or react to the visual cues that he may have struggled to see when wearing the 10 shirt and surrounded by heavier traffic.
Fullback play is not all about attacking brilliance though. Like a goalkeeper in football, the 15 must fill his teammates with confidence from a defensive point of view too. He needs to be the security if the front-line defence breaks down and under opposition kicks.
As we mentioned before, Wales did not repeatedly test le Roux’s tackling, but he did have to field a number of high kicks in Durban, which he did with excellence too.
In the example above, le Roux has to come from deep to claim the kick, and we see him sprinting hard to get under it. Scrum-half Fourie du Preez is already underneath the ball, but clearly gets a strong shout from le Roux to leave it.
That’s the kind of dominance in sweeping up kicks that Meyer wants from his fullback, infusing his teammates – particularly the retreating forwards – with the sense that everything is well covered.
The actual technique of fielding is another area in which le Roux has shown vast improvement over the last three seasons. His leap is usually well-timed and his eyes are always focused on the ball. Upon landing, the fullback’s first instinct is to make metres.
Le Roux’s first Test performance was superb and backed up so much of the sublime work he has done for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby in the last three years. The signs are that his hard work on the training pitch is making him a far more complete fullback and his continuing progress will be watched with interest.
As the ‘Boks look ahead to the Rugby Championship, le Roux’s attacking brilliance and assured fielding provide another layer of quality over the existing base of forward power and organisation.
What did you make of le Roux’s performance last weekend? Is he the complete fullback yet? Which features of his game make him such an excellent player?