Wasps resurgence puts sting Bok in Willie le Roux’s tale
Moving to the English side has revitalised the fullback's career, and a Springbok berth in Japan looks likely
You would hardly describe Willie le Roux’s playing style as cautious, but when the electric Wasps fullback discusses his potential involvement with the Springboks later this year, he is understandably tentative.
Le Roux broke back into SA’s side in 2018, fulfilling at the age of 29 his role as one of the wiser heads in a young backline. He is heading to Japan whatever happens, leaving the Wasps at the end of the season after two and a half years to join Jake White’s Toyota Verblitz. The only question is when he will arrive: in December once his Rugby World Cup is over with SA (the final is on November 1), or in August, having missed out on selection.
The former seems far more likely, despite Le Roux’s humility, after a run of excellent performances in 2018. “There is so much talent in South Africa and all over the world so it is going to be tough to pick 31 players to go to Japan. I would not want that job,” he admits.
Le Roux’s return to the Springbok fold in mid-2018, having not played Test rugby for more than a year, found him selected in a back three with two debutants in Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sbu Nkosi against England. Dyantyi went on to be named Breakthrough Player of the Year and Le Roux re-established himself as one of the world’s premier full-backs.
It has been quite the resurgence. Le Roux’s form had tailed off dramatically towards the end of his time in SA with the Sharks before he thrived at the Wasps. Bok coach Rassie Erasmus effectively gave Le Roux licence to take risks, without major consequences.
“That first Test against England it was both of the wingers’ first starts and we found ourselves 25-3 down after 20 minutes. I don’t think they know what happened. But we came back and those new guys scored a couple of tries. Unbelievable talents. In South Africa, you never know what is coming next. My advice to them is to always have fun.
“I played Super Rugby for the Sharks and they said other people were playing better, and I took that on the chin. I knew what I had to work on. I was not good enough for Springbok rugby at the time. I went in last summer trying to be my old self, to have fun. Not bothered what people say. They say you can do one good thing and five bad things, I am always going to try, I am not going to stop. I was just having fun and Rassie gave me an opportunity, and said to express myself. It is nice if a coach backs you like that.”
Moving to the Wasps has revitalised Le Roux’s career and his gratitude towards the club is genuine. He arrived in Coventry at the start of 2017 and five months later found himself starting in the Premiership final against Exeter. The outcome of that game still haunts him, when the Wasps were defeated in extra time under the baking Twickenham sun.
“It was my first season, only four months and into a final. The semifinal, a sellout at the Ricoh with us winning in the last minute against Leicester, was unbelievable,” he recalls. “And then we came so close at Twickenham, leading with two minutes to go. It is mental how it works out. I still think about it. It would have been nice to win a trophy.”
The Wasps were back in the playoffs last season, with Le Roux at the peak of his powers, providing 21 assists. Before this weekend’s matches they were still mathematically in the mix for the semifinals, but this will be remembered as a testing campaign for the Wasps, hindered by injury with an overall air of transition. The win over Exeter Chiefs a few weeks back was a lightning bolt, reminding us all of how good the Wasps can be at their best.
“It is tough. We are not going as well as we went in past seasons but it is not down to a lack of effort,” said Le Roux. “New guys have come in, we have had loads of injuries, could never get the same team every week. Nine and 10 combinations are very important and we have had three different nines and 10s so far. That is the core of your team. The calls have not gone our way. Sometimes you think the referees call it your way, but this season it feels like none of them have gone our way. Sometimes that is just how it goes.“I haven’t left yet. I still have a job to do here and that job is to reach the semifinals, finishing in the top four. I still believe we can do it.”When he eventually does say goodbye, Le Roux will depart as a vastly improved player compared with two years ago.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)