Initially unwanted by Rassie Erasmus, Springboks’ maverick Willie le Roux still just wants to ‘jol’

Willie le Roux remains a polarising player in the eyes of the South African public. The Springboks’ fullback has brought South Africans joy and frustration in equal measure because of his willingness to try things that others won’t. Pictures: Miguel Medina / AFP

Willie le Roux remains a polarising player in the eyes of the South African public. The Springboks’ fullback has brought South Africans joy and frustration in equal measure because of his willingness to try things that others won’t. Pictures: Miguel Medina / AFP

Published Jul 7, 2024


In the past many South African coaches viewed Willie le Roux as a “rugby lepper” because of his maverick style of play.

Even the great Rassie Erasmus, during his time at the Stormers, didn’t wan’t anything to do with him because he wasn’t seen as the typical South African player. He wasn’t a fullback who followed orders, a machine programmed to kick in a certain part of the field and to run or pass in another.

It’s why his road to Springboks wasn’t a smooth highway. It was via the Platteland, going through the muddy Boland Park pitch in Wellington to the rock-hard surface in Kimberley where a trip Griquas leaves the opposition with some of worst grass burns known to man.

Even while shining for the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, he was still on the outside looking in. In a 2013 interview with journalist Craig Ray, Le Roux couldn’t hide his disappointment when overlooked for the Springboks, saying “ek wil net jol ...” (I just want to play).

“I still remember those days. When I went to Province [Stormers], I wanted to get a contract. Rassie was still the coach and said ‘no, I won’t sign this guy’. He mentioned a lot of things that he thought I wasn’t good at,” said Le Roux.

“Obviously, you respect that and you move on to other opportunities.”

Le Roux eventually got his opportunity to “jol” for the Springboks, and 11 years and 94 Springboks Tests later he has showcased his talent and won two Rugby World Cups in the process.

Former Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer eventually gave Le Roux an opportunity to fulfil a dream he thought would never come true because he was “different”. But “different” is good.

“When I played my 50th game for the Springboks, Rassie said ‘this guy wanted to play for the Stormers and I didn’t give him a contract’ and said how he regrets it!” joked Le Roux.

“You can change people’s minds. I played a certain way then, which probably wasn’t suited for the Boks.

“That’s why I’m grateful to Heyneke, who picked me for the Springboks. He also wanted a different fullback who played a certain way, but you must just continue to knock the door down. And that’s what I tried to do,” he said.

Le Roux remains a polarising player in the eyes of the South African public. He has brought South Africans joy and frustration in equal measure, because of his willingness to try things that others won’t to produce the odd moment of magic.

Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t ... Willie le Roux, the ultimate enigma.

“You go out there and you want to express yourself. You have a certain skill set ... it’s just for the love of the game,” said Le Roux.

“You have the same love for the game watching the Springboks growing up. I still have that same feeling inside of me.”

And being the ultimate enigma comes with social media attention, especially the trolls when Le Roux has a bad game.

“The social media is hectic ... it’s hard on you. When you play a good game, you want to go on social media to see the nice things people say about you,” said Le Roux.

“Then when you don’t play a good game, you don’t want to go on there! So I rather stay away - on good days and bad days.

“I just stick to the people close to you ... they know your worth. At the end it’s what the coaching staff thinks of you, your parents and your wife ... people who have been there during the tough times.”

But with age and experience, Le Roux has become more than just the Springboks’ maverick. He is a stalwart. It’s not just about the flash anymore, it’s also the cool head and the leadership qualities.

There’s also that grit and determination, which encapsulated his remarkable performance at the 2019 World Cup in Japan where he played the semi-final against Wales with basically one arm. He couldn’t catch and pass a ball properly, but he soldiered on for the team. A maverick and a warrior.

Le Roux, however, remains an attacking force from fullback. Having come back to South Africa after a stint in Japan to play for the Bulls, the Springbok is playing some of his best rugby.

His passing ability to create space is still unmatched, and he had a big hand in the Bulls’ success this season, helping them qualify for the final of the United Rugby Championship.

However, a head injury in the semi-final ruled him out of the showpiece match and his absence was felt, as the Pretoria side lacked that creative spark to carry them over the line in the second half against the Glasgow Warriors.

“It was very sad week after that, because you worked so hard the whole season to get to that point,” said Le Roux.

“To get a home final and watch it in the stands ... I don’t enjoy watching rugby in the stands because you basically can’t do anything about it.

“It was tough, but it’s part of life and we grow and we learn. Now I’m excited for what’s ahead.”

— Sardiq (@SardiqWP) March 24, 2024

What’s ahead is possibly a 100 Tests for the Springboks. Only seven players have achieved the feat, with Percy Montgomery (102) and Bryan Habana (124) the only backs to do it.

But Le Roux isn’t focussing on the milestone. He just wants to keep improving and play well enough to keep hold of that Springboks’ jersey.

“Obviously, I’m getting closer to that milestone and sometimes you find yourself counting. But I don’t want to do that because you can get injured and anything can happen,” Le Roux said.

“If I don’t play well, and don’t play next week again, and I may not even get there, even if it’s just six games away. You must still perform to be able to get there.

“I’m not focussing on that too much, just how I can contribute to the team, do my part and play as well as I can when I get the opportunity.”

At 34 years old, another Rugby World Cup may be a stretch for Le Roux. But he hasn’t quite ruled out anything, especially because of his former teammates Willem Alberts and Ruan Pienaar still enjoyed their rugby late in into their 30s.

“I’m not going to tell you that I’m going to be done next year or the year after that. I’m going to take it as it is,” said Le Roux.

“But I can guarantee you it won’t be soon. I’m going to go for as long as I can and until they tell me you must stop playing now or something like that. I still feel good enough to continue.

“I’m not ready to watch rugby from the sidelines!”

Many South Africans aren’t ready for that day either.