Boks: Absence may endanger Willie’s status

Willie le Roux (Getty)
Willie le Roux (Getty)

Cape Town – It would be unfair to attach too much weight to the showings of rivals for Willie le Roux’s Springbok first-choice fullback berth against conspicuous minnows Namibia on Saturday (11:45 SA time).

Nor should we expect head coach Rassie Erasmus, a methodical planner who likes consistency and continuity where possible, to fall especially prey to that.

Even so, the seasoned campaigner who is Le Roux, 30, may just sit in the stands – he plays no part in the match-day 23 at the City of Toyota Stadium – with some sense of trepidation, while at least three alternative options for his spot deeper into the World Cup strut their stuff in a quite likely try-fest against the southern African neighbours.

The Bulls-based Warrick Gelant is directly “deputising” for Le Roux at No 15 against Namibia, while the presence of two other versatile back-liners – Frans Steyn at inside centre, and in-form Cheslin Kolbe as an impact factor off the bench on Saturday – further threatens to loosen his hold on the jersey.

Both the physically imposing, highly experienced Steyn and elusive, gutsy but considerably smaller-in-stature Kolbe are very realistic contenders for the task in the last line of defence, and excellence even in other positional capacities against Namibia could nudge them a vital touch closer to dispossessing Le Roux.

The oft-favoured fullback had a notably poor outing in the 23-13 pool-opening reverse to New Zealand in Yokohama last weekend -- a significant concern being his shakiness under the high ball, particularly in a broadly erratic first half which went a long way to sealing the Boks’ fate.

In fairness, Le Roux wasn’t the only fairly staple Bok back-division figure to labour against the defending champions, as the likes of Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk also under-dazzled on the day.

Erasmus is unlikely to resort to panic stations when he names his line-up – expected to be back to a hugely more full-strength one – for next Friday’s third group match against Six Nations representatives Italy.

So whether or not his “dirt-trackers” have posted a cricket score in the interim against the Namibians, the mastermind should give a vote of confidence to Le Roux, among other stalwarts, for that date; it is not as though too many of them have been routinely failing.

In his favour at present is just how regularly he has been the premier pick at No 15: Le Roux has had the nod for all four matches so far in 2019 in which Erasmus has overwhelmingly deployed his A-troops: NZ in Wellington (draw), Argentina in Salta (win), Japan in Saitama (win) and NZ in Yokohama (loss).

He also sports a not inconsiderable 57 caps for the country, including 48 as starting fullback, whereas someone like Gelant – the only other true No 15 specialist in the Boks’ RWC squad – remains fairly wet behind the ears internationally with just four starts and only three of those in his preferred position.

Gelant has not wholly proved yet that he “belongs” on the highest stage, despite his obvious potential and time still being on his side.

Former Wasps player Le Roux, now returning to club employ in Japan with Toyota Verblitz, has shown a bit less of his silky, sometimes uniquely creative repertoire this season, but generally been reliable enough at his stock chores – until last Saturday’s unfortunate handful of howlers.

It is if Gelant (and nearby also Steyn and Kolbe on Saturday) looks sharp against Namibia, and then Le Roux has another unpalatably erratic date of his own against Italy, that Erasmus may be reluctantly coaxed into adjusting his pecking order at No 15 for the business end of the tournament.

Whenever South Africa have won the Webb Ellis Cup before, remember, they have been able to boast a reliable, clearly pick-of-the-crop fullback: Andre Joubert (broken hand and all) in 1995, and Percy Montgomery in 2007.

After Yokohama, Le Roux has a bit of fresh convincing to do that he is that reassuring bastion at the back in 2019.

The game against the Azzurri on October 4, you would imagine, will offer him no room for bloopers …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing ...

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