Cape Town - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer had every reason to be beaming on Saturday night as he reflected on a performance against Wales that spoke volumes about how far his team has travelled since he took charge in 2012.
According to the supersport.com website, in the end a sloppy second half and a more committed Welsh defensive line saw to it that the Boks didn’t complete the massacre that threatened at halftime, when the hosts led 28-9 and had already scored four well taken tries. Just 10 points were added after the break against a Welsh try to George North, but who would quibble about a 38-16 win over Wales.
It was the most complete performance turned in at the weekend by the big three southern hemisphere teams, and was arguably better than Australia’s annihilation of France the previous week. There was always going to be a step up in the Bok performance once the test matches arrived and they’d left the ambiguity of playing a World XV that included several of their countrymen behind, and they provided it.
It was at the same Kings Park a just a week out from being a year ago that the Boks first started to show indications that under Meyer they weren’t going to be stuck in the conservative rut they had been in the previous season. They thumped Italy fairly comprehensively, and afterwards everyone was talking about the pace that had been injected out wide.
But the Boks of 2014 look even more clinical than the team that played in the early part of 2013, and no-one was a better advert for the improvements and the growth than Willie le Roux, who has now developed into a player who had both coaches acknowledging him as the finest fullback on the planet after Saturday.
An Israel Dagg when on form might beg to differ and so might Israel Folau, but Le Roux certainly did enough to impress Wales coach Warren Gatland, who coached the British and Irish Lions to victory over the Wallabies last year and has travelled a long road after starting out internationally at the helm of Wales way back in the 1990s.
“He’s a pest who is probably the best fullback in the world at the moment,” said Gatland.
Meyer beat Gatland to the punch there, for the Boks broke the trend of the losing team being first up in the post-match press conference in Durban. According to the Bok coach, Le Roux is now the complete article as a fullback, something that skipper Victor Matfield sitting alongside also readily nodded his head in agreement to.
Meyer paid tribute to the coaching staff, particularly kicking coach Louis Koen, who had worked hard with Le Roux on getting him up to speed on the subtleties and basics of fullback play. A year ago Le Roux had to ask wing Bryan Habana for advice on where to stand during his debut test, but the Cheetahs star was in control of all aspects of fullback play against Wales.
And just to sum up what might have changed in 12 months, and the impact that the coaching may have had on his development, the player himself seemed to be more chuffed about his fielding of the high balls, the staple of a player in the last line of defence, than he was about his engaging performance on attack.
“It’s not for me to rate my performance, but I am happy to say that I thought the first 40 minutes went really well,” said the modest 24-year-old.
“It is a pleasure for me that I could help set up tries and I also enjoyed scoring one myself, but I was particularly pleased that I took my high balls because that is what I have worked particularly hard on, and that was the pre-match goal – to take the highest ball kicked in the game and show that I am a complete fullback.”
Le Roux certainly did appear to relish the challenge of fielding the Wales kicks, and hardly a ball that went anywhere near him touched the ground. It played a big part in blunting the Welsh, for they had shown in training during the week that they wanted to create pressure by kicking onto Cornal Hendricks and Le Roux.
Not only did Le Roux field the kicks, he also ensured that the Welsh quickly realised that wasn't the avenue to follow.
“Every time the Welsh kicked onto Willie he ended up putting them under pressure,” said Meyer.
Meyer said he had told Le Roux when he selected him last year that he could only consider himself the regular starting fullback until he had mastered the basics, and he has done that now.
“Willie showed us a lot and really came through on the last end of year tour and in this game he showed that he has become a complete fullback,” said the coach.
It is not though Le Roux’s catching of the high ball and his much improved tactical kicking game that makes him so special. What makes him the pest that Gatland speaks about is his ability to always engage two defenders at once, thus creating space for players around him.
His early experience at fullback – he played there for Boland – is also a huge part of his weaponry, and he appears to be getting even more involved now as a first receiver once the ball has been taken through a few phases, and is particularly dangerous when the Boks probe the short side, something that wreaked particular havoc against Wales.
Le Roux wasn’t alone though in shining against the Welsh, and on another day Francois Louw, for his yeoman work at the breakdowns, would have earned the man of the match award. Gurthro Steenkamp scrummed well in his 50th match, while Victor Matfield probably erased for good any doubts about his ability to regain his former prowess as an international player.
It wasn’t so much Matfield’s lineout work that caught the eye, for we all know that is pretty special, but rather his industriousness around the field. Those who felt that Matfield might be scared of engagement, and there were many who did, would have had their mind thoroughly changed by Matfield’s outstanding performance on a day where the only downer for South African rugby was the poor turn-out (37 000), but perhaps that wasn’t helped by the negativity that seemed to pervade in the build-up, and also possibly the fact that so many Durbanites seem aggrieved at the style of rugby being played by the Sharks at the moment.
But the Boks aren’t the Sharks and Meyer has his team playing a far more complete style of rugby than the country’s top franchise is at present. And that is a pleasant change from the usual trend of the Boks aping the style of the premier local team.
That may be as much about the enormous progress the Boks have made in the speed with which they get the ball back from the breakdowns as it is about attitude.