Boks: Willie’s axing sends awful signal

Bryan Habana and Willie le Roux (Getty)
Bryan Habana and Willie le Roux (Getty)

Cape Town – The Springboks scored two tries in their 20-18 upset at the hands of Italy last weekend … you might be entitled to call that a crime in itself.

Yet it is also a far from irrelevant fact that Willie le Roux had a critical hand in the creation of each of them in the first half in Florence, and he so nearly put Bryan Habana in for another with a cleverly-judged long, floated pass in the fateful second.

In many respects, the former Sharks fullback – bound for English Premiership outfit Wasps in January – seemed back to his best as an increasingly rare provider of unpredictable genius in the Bok backline.

Le Roux has seldom been perfect, and he did commit certain gremlins in the national team’s first ever reverse to the Italians.

But he was also considerably better than he had been in the more thumping 37-21 loss to England at Twickenham a week earlier and, for the record, earned “premier” Bok individual rating on another grim day for the collective cause on the Sport24 performance card against Italy with a 6/10 assessment.

Now, though, he is a goner … out of the match-day 23 entirely for the last shot at some kind of tour redemption against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday (19:30 SA time).

Head coach Allister Coetzee was urged by several prominent critics to shake the bag in favour of rookie-geared, often youthful energy for this season-ender to the annus horribilis, and in many respects he cannot be blamed for obliging in his team pick on Thursday.

There are as many as seven alterations to the starting XV, and it will be educative and potentially exciting to see, particularly, just how new caps Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jamba Ulengo and Uzair Cassiem come through on such a go-for-broke occasion.

But the Boks now field an unusually callow backline, something that looks especially conspicuous given that Bryan Habana, with his massive 124 caps, is among the casualties.

On that score, it makes even less sense for the 27-year-old Le Roux (41 caps), who would have helped keep a semblance of experience to the back three, to have been deemed surplus to requirements against the Welsh.

Yes, it is admirable that -- as trumpeted in the official press release accompanying the side -- 14 of the starters will be players based with domestic Super Rugby franchises next year.

But that still doesn’t mean that Le Roux’s omission looks that bit more justifiable, given that the soon UK-based customer is replaced by another “foreign” Bok in versatile Johan Goosen of Racing Metro.

Nor is it as though Goosen is a simply irresistible pick at No 15; his favourite responsibility is still flyhalf and he wasn’t wonderfully comfortable in the last line of defence in four starts there during the Rugby Championship – Le Roux is at least a more specialist fullback who was just showing signs of a return to revered, slippery standards of old in Florence.

When you apply the guillotine to one of the ever-dwindling handful of “X-factor” players in the Bok mix, after he has demonstrated those attributes in sublime little bursts the previous Saturday, what sort of message are you sending in a climate where the Boks are being lambasted for falling behind other top-tier  nations for invention and generally progressive rugby?

I guess it is a question best directed to Coetzee …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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