Brisbane – Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie is enthralled with what he has seen of Springbok dynamo Willie le Roux. “He’s almost Australian!” the Wallabies coach said in a media huddle at the team hotel here on Monday.
“Willie has been a bit of an enigma over the last 18 months, he’s a very creative player and he’s been so effective for the Cheetahs that Heyneke’s put him in there (with the Boks).”
What makes Le Roux “Australian” in McKenzie’s eyes is a high level of ball skills and rugby intelligence.
“The rest (of South Africa’s back-three) are solid on the fundamentals, Zane Kirchner is a good effective player, but Willie gives them a fair bit of X-factor,” added the Wallabies coach.
Le Roux has started five Tests since making his Bok debut against Italy in June. The Cheetahs flyer has fine-tuned the art of taking a flat ball out wide and then chipping in behind a back-three coming up in line defence. But what often gets lost in the euphoria of Le Roux’s moments of magic is a high error-rate, one that eats away at the effectiveness of the Boks’ percentage tactics.
Even though South Africa’s count of 36 turnovers conceded is the least in the Rugby Championship after two rounds, a staggering 86% of those turnovers have occurred in general play, where knock-ons and skewed kicks are tallied.
The Boks are the only team who have yet to concede a lineout and scrum turnover, but this accuracy has been negated due to miscues in general play.
Facing the Wallabies on Suncorp Stadium’s fast pitch will present Le Roux with his first real opportunity against serious opposition to prove there is a place for a gambler in the Bok backline, though it remains to be seen whether coach Heyneke Meyer is quite ready to roll the dice on a maverick fullback in one of the team’s toughest assignments of the season.
The skills and smarts common to Le Roux are a top priority for McKenzie as he begins the process of restoring Australia’s rugby identity.
The Wallabies coach is blessed with an abundance of such dynamos – Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale – but it’s Australia’s shortage of brutes such as Bok pounders Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts that has warned McKenzie against fighting fire with fire.
“I’ve always admired the talent that’s on display in South African rugby,” he said. “They’ve got options and plenty of players. I’ve watched teams develop, like the Sharks, Cheetahs and Bulls, and there are differences in the way they play, it’s just a question of what you value.
“If Australia play like everyone else, we won’t go as well. So we have to find a point of relevance in our own space. If we hose that idea down and start playing for field position, we’ll be in the same boat with other teams who can outmuscle us.
“We’re doing things in attack that people will eventually realise is different, we are trying to find our own space in the rugby landscape where people can say ‘that’s how Australia plays’.
“In the amateur era, we played with backlines that had 30 percent possession, and we were still able to beat teams with skill and flair.
“Sure, defences are much more organised these days, but that’s where the skill and intelligence comes into it.”
Meyer respects McKenzie, but the Bok coach intimated that the demands of coaching a national team calls for more pragmatism.
“I’ve always had a great coaching battle with Ewen and I see him as a friend, but the national team is the most difficult one to coach because there’s so much focus on the team from the media, and the whole country wants you to play an exciting brand of rugby. The thing is, you only have three days to get the team ready,” Meyer said. “I believe that the Wallabies will go from strength to strength with Ewen, but you need time as a coach to change the culture of the team.”
It’s clear that McKenzie would make space for a player of Le Roux’s ilk in his set-up, but the talented fullback may well be culled by Meyer’s single-minded determination to win Test matches at all costs. The Springbok team is scheduled to be announced on Wednesday.
Hamilton: New Zealand v Argentina (9.35am), Brisbane: Australia v South Africa (12.05pm).
Saturday, September 14
Auckland: New Zealand v South Africa (9.35am), Perth: Australia v Argentina (12.05pm).