Johannesburg - Willie le Roux has his chance to playing himself into Heyneke Meyer’s Rugby World Cup plans as a player who can provide the X-factor that was missing from the Springboks for much of last season but which is sometimes needed to break a close game apart.
According to the supersport.com website, although he makes his debut for the Boks as a fullback against Italy on Saturday, his long term future might well be as an impact sub that will provide thrust from the bench later on in the big matches.
The bench is becoming an increasingly more important factor in the game, and it is something Meyer, who perfected the art of timing his substitutions at the Bulls, will want to work on with the Boks now that other aspects of the team are starting to become more settled.
Were the Boks playing the All Blacks on Saturday, Meyer might well have gone for Pat Lambie as the safest option while Zane Kirchner continues his recovery from injury, but he sees the Castle Incoming Tour Series as a perfect opportunity blood newcomers - and he says the Free Stater has changed his mind about his abilities over the past few weeks.
“If you had asked me about him about six weeks ago I might have given you a different answer, but he has shown himself to be a player who has that X-factor we need to add to the mix if we are going to be a complete team,” said Meyer.
“If you look at the past World Cups, they’re not usually decided by lots of tries. But an X-factor moment in a key World Cup game can win you the trophy. A lot of people have pigeon-holed me as a guy who only likes players who can play a certain way, but if you look at my Bulls teams over the years, there were always guys there that were a bit different and could provide that missing X-factor.”
Bryan Habana, Jaco van der Westhuyzen and the late Etienne Botha were examples of that, and Le Roux could be added to that list if he makes a full fist of his opportunity on Saturday.
“What I like about him is the fact that he does appear to be a player who can be coached, I picked up that in a one-on-one with him. He understands the game,” said Meyer.
The selection for the opening test of the year has been a master-stroke on Meyer’s part for more than just the potential of the players in the selected unit, but also because it appears he has understood the importance of putting out the right message to the public, something that maybe he didn’t do last year.
This first series, against second tier opposition, is the perfect opportunity for the players to gain confidence on attack but also for Meyer to still the many critics who accuse him of being too conservative in both his game-plan and selections.
Meyer has always been a processes, long-term plan type of coach, and he has always said that his game will develop as the team plays together more.
The conditions and the pressures experienced on the last end of year tour prevented the Boks from making any significant strides in terms of their attacking game then, but they did win all the games and started to pick up a winning habit.
That has bred some confidence into the core of the team that played in Ireland, Scotland and England last November. While several changes have been made at the back because of injury and because Meyer wants to try new things there, he has the security of knowing that his pack is developing nicely.
“Six of the eight players who made up the forward unit in the last test of 2012 against England are back for the game against Italy,” said Meyer.
The only positions where there has been change are No 8, where Duane Vermeulen is out injured and Pierre Spies is back from injury, and loosehead prop, where Beast Mtawarira is back after leaving the last end of year tour with a minor heart complaint.
Meyer is confident that the forwards can provide the platform that will help ease the backline players into it in their first outing in the green and gold jerseys.
Morne Steyn comes back at flyhalf for this first game of the year and brings considerable experience, but skipper Jean de Villiers may still miss the game even though he was named in the starting line-up.
Meyer said that De Villiers was still doubtful and would be monitored until Friday, when a final decision will be made. If he doesn’t play, the backline configuration will include no less than three debutants in the form of scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, inside centre Jan Serfontein and Le Roux, while outside centre JJ Engelbrecht has only played one test as a replacement.
However, Meyer agrees that the backline is the area where the most experimentation is needed as he is not sure how many of the experienced Boks are still going to be available or at the top of their game when the World Cup arrives in 2015.
He would love to have JP Pietersen available, but the Sharks wing won’t be playing in the Castle Rugby Championships over the next few seasons as per the details of the contract he has signed with his Japanese club.
And while Frans Steyn is still young and boasts a lot of talent, his injuries are starting to become a problem and are introducing doubts about his potential to be a long-term option for the Boks.
So now is the time for the young wave of players that Meyer has identified as the future to start coming through and making their mark.
“We only have 28 Test matches at this point until the start of the World Cup so we need to start building experience. At a World Cup it is crucial that the bulk of your squad boasts considerable international experience,” he said.