THE WILY WILLIE
It’s a dream to play just one match for Boks, but to play 23 is a privilege and great honour
HE HAS had to go the long way around to get into the Springbok team, but now Willie le Roux is one of the magicians in the backline.
The Bok fullback proved that once more in last week’s 31-28 victory over England at Twickenham when he anticipated a Patrick Lambie chip over the defence, gathered the ball and drew the last two defenders before producing an audacious offload with two Englishmen on him for Cobus Reinach to score.
Last week, he was also named as one of the five nominees for the World Rugby Player-of-the-Year. We sat down with him ahead of tomorrow’s Test against Italy, where he will be taking a breather on the bench.
How’s your golf?
Ag, I’m just always the guy who fills up the team. I just go along for fun. But I’m alright – I think I’m a 14-handicapper, so I can play a bit. So, I enjoy it.
And your rugby?
Erm, I would say … I am pleased overall. Obviously, it’s an honour to play in this team and I am thankful for everything that has happened. At the weekend (against England), it felt good again and we managed to score a good try, and I was involved in it. So, I feel good.
Did you read Pat Lambie’s chip?
Ja, I half looked at that space in behind and I shouted at Pat and he didn’t even look, he just kicked it. But it’s something that we practiced in the week and luckily it came off and we went to score a try.
It looked like you may have held on to the ball too long before you made the offload to Cobus Reinach?
Ja, I was in two minds because (England fullback) Mike Brown had me already on the one side and I had to pass. But if I had passed too early, then (England No8 Billy) Vunipola would’ve been able to catch Cobus, so I had to hold on to it right until the end, and luckily it worked out nicely.
You were at Boland for four years and had to play Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup first division rugby. Now you have 23 Test caps. How do you feel about that?
Well, when I moved to Griquas in 2012 from Boland, my first goal was just to play one Super Rugby game. But that year, I played all 16 games in a row for the Cheetahs. And your dream is always to play for the Boks, even if it’s just one Test – you just want to know that you are a Bok and you want to wear that blazer. So, to have played 23 already is a privilege and a big honour, and you can just say thank you to the Lord for the talent that he has given me.
You were once called the “Quade Cooper” of Boland rugby!
My friends always joked with me about that because they obviously watched Quade Cooper at that time and how he played, and they compared me to him when I was playing for Boland. But it didn’t bother me and I just kept on playing.
But how difficult was it to deal with the fact that the Stormers didn’t give you a chance?
I must say, you come from the Cape and your dream was always to play for the Stormers, and I tried. I was part of the training camps, along with Bolla Conradie, who was at Boland then. We would train with them and do everything, and then in January they would cut the squad for the tournament and just send us back to Boland.
So yes, it is heartbreaking and it was difficult to accept. But you can’t crawl into a hole – you’ve got to look at other options and if you get an opportunity, you must grab it with both hands. So, luckily I got a chance with Griquas and they said I could play Super Rugby for the Cheetahs. Luckily, things worked out for me.
In Heyneke Meyer’s first year in 2012, the Boks were seen as playing a conservative gameplan. But since he picked you in 2013, there has been a real effort to play a more attacking style. How do you find him as a coach?
Firstly, he is a great coach. He is a good person – he is honest with you and speaks to you in a straightforward manner. He told me in the one-on-ones before I played my first game that he might give me a chance. But then I did get my chance and I played, and then he also told me that he won’t choose me if I don’t play towards my strong points. He also said that if I don’t make mistakes, then he would know that I didn’t try my best. So, I am one of those players who tends to make some mistakes, but I also get things right. So, that’s how it works, and I am just grateful that he gave me a chance.
That must be so important, that you have the freedom to play your natural game, because it wouldn’t have worked if he had to tell you exactly what you are supposed to do and change your game around totally?
There would be games where I kicked the ball back 10 times, and then the people boo you in the stands. But there is a reason for that, you understand – it’s not as if I want to kick it back, but that is just how it works out sometimes. But in the next game, I could run the ball back 10 times. That is Test rugby.
The people must understand that Super Rugby, Currie Cup rugby and Test rugby are all totally different. Test rugby involves each country’s best players that you are playing against every weekend – there is a lot more pressure.
Sometimes it looks as if the team rely too much on you to make things happen on attack. Do you get that sense, or do you feel that the team are really working well as an overall attacking unit?
No, in terms of the team as a whole, we will always be in our attacking shape – whether we are in our 22 where they are kicking off on us, or we are in their 22, we are always in the same shape. We play what we see in front of us, and if there is a full defensive line in place, it’s then stupid to run if you are alone there at the back. So then you rather kick it back.,
But I would say we are always in our attacking shape as a team and I don’t think that they expect too much from me. I just try to play my game like I have always done, and nothing has changed. For me, I just want to get my hands on the ball and be involved.
You often come in at first receiver. Do you like to do that, or do you think you operate better in space from the back?
I like doing that, otherwise I wouldn’t be going in there. It is something that happens naturally – I sometimes don’t even realise that I am there, but then I find myself there. I pop up somewhere, and I have that feeling of flyhalf from my younger days, so it’s nice for me to go in there and set the forwards up, and to see whether I create something there. I get along well with the flyhalves and they know if I come in, they just shift one position on, and if they are there, then I just slot in one position out. I fall in anywhere, I just play.
What makes you tick, or inspires you?
Jisso, you go through some tough times where they have said no to you and that you are too small and won’t make it, and things like that. So, just to be where I am now, and how I play and stuff, I want to give motivation to and inspire younger guys who are in the same situation as I was.
To say no matter who you are, big or small, you must never stop dreaming or playing because your break will come. And if you get the chance, you must take it. So, it’s about inspiring younger guys who may not be the biggest around, but they are quick.
Who were some of your role models growing up? Favourite players?
I always enjoyed how Carlos Spencer played – the way he used to do things. He pulled off those odd chips, passed the ball
I must say, you come from the Cape and your dream was always to play for the Stormers and I tried ... It is heartbreaking and it was difficult to accept, but you can’t crawl into a hole – you have got to look at other options ...
between the legs and he actually runs out from his tryline and passes the ball just away from the uprights to his wing.
So, that is who I used to look at, and I also enjoyed watching Brent Russell – he was small, he was quick and he scored great tries. Like Bryan (Habana), Bryan was also one of my big heroes, and now playing with him … Jean (de Villiers), every- one I looked up to, Schalk (Burger).
What do you think of Johan Goosen at fullback?
Goosen is a very talented player and we know each other from the Cheetahs, so I am very happy for him. You just get one chance and you have to use it, so I wish him well.
Of course, we see each other as a threat, but we are good friends too, and you give a guy a chance. And I am very happy for him after all his injuries that he is back in the set-up. I hope he does well this week.
How do you feel about being nominated for the World Rugby Player-of-the-Year award?
Ja, that was actually a shock as I didn’t expect that. But I am very thankful, and you can’t do it without your team. So, it’s thanks to them and to the coach for giving me the opportunity.
What do the Springboks still need to do to be ready to win the World Cup?
That’s a difficult question. I would say you should never just think you’ve made it and you’ve arrived, because then what happened in Ireland could happen again. Then you come right back to earth and you realise what you did wrong and which areas of your game to work on.
You must keep on improving and have the same approach every Monday. You can’t do it differently or relax just because you won at the weekend. You start your preparation over and work hard. We beat England, but now we had to have the same approach to the Italy game.