Johannesburg - It was almost a year ago to the day that veteran Springbok wing Bryan Habana had to remind nervous debutant Willie le Roux where to stand before kick-off against Italy at Kings Park.
The 23-year-old had been so stirred by the national anthems that his butterflies got the best of him and Habana had to almost literally hold his hand during the opening minutes before Le Roux settled down to have a cracking debut.
A year on, it was a very different Le Roux that took the same field, again for the Boks’ Test season opener, this time against Wales on Saturday, and the fullback was irrepressible from the first whistle. And this time Habana could sit back and enjoy the ride as Le Roux shred the defence to put him away for a try that was astonishing both for its conception from nothing as it was to Habana’s expert finishing.
A year in the life of Willie le Roux ... from unknown Griquas player to a “pest that is probably the best fullback in the world,” according to Wales coach Warren Gatland.
“It is not for me to rate my performance but I am happy to say that the first 40 went really well,” the shy 24-year-old said with understatement. “It is as pleasing to me that I could set up tries, and score one of my own, as it is that I took my high balls because that is what I really worked hard on during the week, and that was my pre-match goal – take the highest ball kicked in the game and show I am a complete fullback.”
The Stellenbosch-raised Le Roux has a natural attacking game, and it comes instinctively for him to spot where the defence can be split, but the other attributes that are intrinsic to the best fullbacks have taken nothing short of hard labour for him to master.
Coach Heyneke Meyer told him he would not be the Springbok fullback of first choice until he could catch and kick with assurance, because the attacking side of his game was a luxury that could only be enjoyed by the team once he had mastered the basics
During the end of year tour to the UK and France last year, Meyer said that his fullback had “passed the test” after a season of working on his weaker points had provided “safe” performances from him in the toughest conditions the northern hemisphere could provide.
A year on, Meyer said after the 38-16 win over Wales: “Willie is now very much world class. It does not seem that long ago that we told him that there was much more to fullback play than the attacking game that came so easily to him. He has worked so hard with our coaches to become the complete fullback. He has grown immensely, and that is down to sheer hard work, and it is so pleasing to see a player loving his rugby because he is confident in all facets of his game. He is taking the high ball comfortably, he is kicking with ease rather than reluctance. He had an unbelievable game because he is playing with freedom.”
In other words he no longer has any inhibitions about his game. He also well remembers the guiding hand lent to him by Habana during that nervy debut.
“Bryan was a childhood hero of mine. I looked to him when I was unsure of myself in my first Tests, and he was there with encouragement,” the Paul Roos Gymnasium product said. “To be able to create a try for him against Wales, a year later, was special for me, and I must add that I could not have had the game that I did had it not been for the experience of players such as him alongside me.”
The “pest” that Gatland described will no doubt be singled out for attention in the analysis sessions that Wales will have this week before the second Test.
“I think they will put more pressure on me this week, they will know that I like to change direction and work the blind side, and they will look to cover that, but that means I must find other openings in Nelspruit ...”
And Le Roux adds that while Wales will no doubt aim to raise their game, the same goes for the Springboks
“It is so encouraging for us that that we have laid down a marker like this in our first game because the ethos of this team is that you never go backwards from a performance,” he said.
“You have to improve every game and we have set a good standard in the first outing. You have to keep moving on, carving out improved performances from what has gone before.”