Rugby | Boks: Willie’s tricks losing charm

Cape Town – Willie le Roux reminds me a little of the magician who used to be in major demand at my daughter’s and many of her friends’ kiddie parties.

He would generate shrieks of laughter and amazement from the girls, and yes, I was one of several parents present who might sneakily take up a place near the back – feigning merest passing interest and citing “supervision” of the young guests, of course – to watch him dip his hand into the box of tricks too.

The guy was so popular, and good, that getting him back for the next birthday was virtually a fait accompli.

But the year after that? Nah, my ever-maturing daughter would say ruefully but politely, perhaps it is time to think of doing something else on party day.

At least the magician – still firmly in trade, I gather – knows he will always appeal to a particular, constantly renewing age bracket.

Le Roux, another brand of professional entertainer and unpredictable sorcerer in his own way, isn’t quite so lucky: the more that rival players, coaches, spectators and high-definition television-watchers get to witness his play, the more they become aware of and alert to what he is likeliest to do with ball in hand from the various areas and angles of the park.

The near 27-year-old has now played 35 Tests for South Africa since his debut against Italy at Kings Park in 2013, and more often than not been the Springboks’ first-choice fullback since.

At times he has been irresistibly impressive, slicing open defences – both strong and more so-so – with an assortment of hand or foot wiles that have utterly bamboozled them.

He is capable of being a breath of fresh air in a Bok team not exactly heaving in present climes with X-factor.

But I would also argue that the lion’s share of those truly game-breaking occasions by the bearded creator have come in the earlier chapters of his Test career; more recently his influence as a try-generator (sometimes from nothing) or scorer has dipped.

This has placed a renewed spotlight on the more orthodox, functional aspects of his duties in the last line of defence, and although his undoubted footballing skills and acumen do sometimes serve him well in that respect, he is also capable of a certain flakiness and wrong or ineffectual option-taking defensively.

His body language, with that grimace and shake of the head as if the ball has bounced all too cruelly for him when we all know it is unforgivably oval anyway, can’t always be the greatest tonic to those around him, either.

When it comes to offensive plays, meanwhile, Le Roux is increasingly shifting just too crab-like across the field, rather than piercing the enemy line like a panther.

That little shuffle or “mock gallop” he does before setting off often in the same direction (so often his beloved left) anyway … you want to cry out for him to add something different to his once constantly acclaimed repertoire, don’t you?

His performance against Ireland on Saturday, while not without its positives, earned certain protesting howls from pundits and ex-Boks, some of whom even advocate a swift change in the No 15 jersey.

One of the latter category, the 2003-2007-era flyhalf Derick Hougaard, not inaccurately stated on SuperSport’s “SuperRugby” Afrikaans chat show on Monday night: “My big concern at the moment is the way (Le Roux) runs across the field constantly, taking the wings’ space away and leaving them nothing to work with.

“Every time he gave the ball (to someone else) that player would be in a worse position to be able to do anything with it.

“His talent is not in doubt, but some of his issues need to be sorted out with coaching; making sure guys run correct lines.

“We desperately need someone to be able to straighten the backline … there are other players who deserve chances.”

The country is not exactly heaving with other, attractive fullback specialists at present, although the lobby turning against Le Roux naturally bring up such names as the versatile Jesse Kriel, who seems a more direct and power-based runner than the incumbent, and even Ruan Combrinck, the yet-uncapped Bok squad wing from the Lions who is capable of doubling as a No 15.

Still, ditching Le Roux is hardly a decision to be taken lightly; get rid of him, and aren’t you making the Boks only more mind-numbingly easy to read on occasions?

At his best, and when he alters play constructively in a flash, Willie le Roux remains one of the most pleasurable Springboks to watch.

I don’t personally wish yet for him to be summarily dropped after only one Test match – a collective SA horror show – in 2016 and under a head coach on national-level debut.

So much was out of synch across the spectrum for the Boks on the day, and scapegoats are all too easy to pinpoint.

There is a danger, though, that Le Roux’s overall value is diminishing and some sense of reinvention is needed …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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