Tuesday 20 February 2018

Neil Francis: Willie le Roux is no showboater - he dropped that ball because he was not fit for purpose

Wasps wing was stretchered off with concussion six days before out-of-character Aviva blunder

Willie Le Roux of Wasps comes crashing down after being tackled in the air by Worcester Warriors’ Bryce Heem (number 14), who was subsequently sent off. Photo: Getty
Willie Le Roux of Wasps comes crashing down after being tackled in the air by Worcester Warriors’ Bryce Heem (number 14), who was subsequently sent off. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Twenty-three minutes and 13 seconds have elapsed in the Leinster versus Wasps Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva. Das wunderkind Joey Carbery has the ball in his hands after fielding a fairly loose kick. He knows what he is about to do and primes himself: a box kick; he puts up a beauty. The optimum distance for a box-kick is 25-30 metres.

This one lands 28 metres from where it was kicked. As Jimmy Gopperth lands from his aerial take he is smashed back five metres by Garry Ringrose, whose wonderfully aggressive defensive displays signal that he is already the complete player.

Despite the vigorous pursuit, Gopperth does just enough in an upside-down state to transfer to Kurtley 'I'm on £800k for the season' Beale. Ringrose, incredibly, is up quickly enough from his first tackle to attempt a second a millisecond after the initial impact. Beale steps out of the tackle and is on his way. Beale zings his way past the stationary twin towers of Devin Toner and Hayden Triggs and suddenly Leinster are in scramble mode. From the moment that Gopperth collected the ball, his left wing Willie le Roux is shielding his eyes from the sun's glare 40 metres away on the other wing wondering what is going on with play on the other side of the pitch.

Beale, by the time he beats the combined tackle of Robbie Henshaw and Carbery near the half-way line, is opening up the throttle as the two Leinster players hinder each other. Le Roux at this stage has picked up speed and is about 17 metres away from the Australian, and by the time Fergus McFadden is drawn in and forced to tackle Beale, the South African winger has taken a flat pass at full speed no more than five metres from the contact.

Running a trail line . . . well the great players can either anticipate or visualise the outcome of where they think the last tackler will be. In an abstract field of broken runners, left-behind stragglers and nervous tacklers, it is all about guesswork, intuition and pattern recognition.

In a game of speed and constant movement, what is required to position your trail run perfectly is so much more than a chess player's anticipatory instinct. It was a world-class read of where he needed to be. Le Roux ran 30 metres to the line and then inexplicably dropped the ball in the act of scoring. Incidents like these in big matches are what makes the game so compelling: absolute brilliance and reckless ineptitude in the same act. How did Willie le Roux become Winnie the Pooh in the space of seven seconds?

Before we get to the depressingly familiar kernel of the issue, there are a number of things which the episode brought to bear which are worthy of discussion.

"Follow it up, follow it up -that's the way to win the cup." A familiar refrain at schools matches over the last two months. Conversely, if you chase back that is also beneficial to your team's cause. Johnny Sexton is a determined soul and he had a key role to play in this farce. Cast your mind back to the Ireland versus New Zealand game at the Aviva and the incisive break by Beauden Barrett for New Zealand's first try. Barrett has many talents and is a world-class player but his place-kicking is so far short of all his other priceless attributes, so when he crossed a metre wide of the 15-metre line, he subconsciously tried to get a better angle for his conversion. Sexton as is his wont chased him for pig iron and when the Kiwi got over the line and didn't place the ball down immediately, he was ripe for an ambush.

I have watched the replay over 50 times. I am convinced and so is the player that he prevented grounding and so the try should not have been awarded. Sexton may or may not have got a yellow for the nature of the tackle but the principle is correct: never give up on the chase and one in a hundred times you will dislodge or hold the 'try-scorer' up over the line.

Sexton through force of habit chased Le Roux all the way back to the line, more to widen the angle than anything else. Nigel Owens initially looked like he had run a brilliant trail line as well to be able to view the dropped ball, but too much credit was given; he did not see it spill.

If Sexton had not chased back he would not have seen the drop and would not have remonstrated with Owens. The Welshman wasn't having anything to do with Sexton's rectangular sign language. A player down and a replay on the big screen made Owens think again and I suppose Sexton's continuous remonstrations played a part; it was a chance happening and certainly a retrospective judgement "wait a minute, time out" he says. In fairness to Owens, he is big enough to change his mind if the decision requires. The correct decision was made: it was not a try. The bottom line? Always chase back!

What about the player? Le Roux is a serious proposition. The telepathic reading of where to position himself for Beale's offload tells you he has more in his locker than your common or garden pacy international winger. Le Roux played a large part of his career at out-half, so he has more football in him than most wingers or full-backs and consistently demonstrates this. He is a really good player - just short of world class. I have watched him play numerous times for the Cheetahs/Sharks and the Boks.

Le Roux has quite a number of 'great try compilations' on the web and I watched several of them. It is always interesting to observe the mechanics of how players actually put the ball down over the line.

In about 30 of the tries I watched, Le Roux mostly carried the ball in his right hand, dived as he got over the line and used his left arm to break his fall and cushion himself for impact. The ball would not be under his body but always to the side. It was interesting too that among some truly spectacular tries there was very little show-boating or swallow-diving. He is not Chris Ashton.

How could there be such a failure of technique in such a simple task where no one was even close to him? What was going through his mind at the time? I discussed this with a psychologist, who suggested that it was an act of brinkmanship or showmanship designed to boost morale and be clearly seen as a turning point in the game. It would have been an 8-7 score-line, and Wasps back in the game, happy in the knowledge that they could open up Leinster if they got some loose ball.

I wasn't sure of this because I don't think he did showboat. I watched the clip again and something struck me. About 10 metres from the line he placed his left arm over the ball as if he was going to dive with two arms over the ball. Why would a top international-class winger suddenly metres from the line change the way he has traditionally scored tries since he became a pro? Le Roux then took his left arm off the ball as he prepared to dive. Why would he do that? Why would someone who has scored hundreds of tries have a flutter of indecision like that?

It came to me. I didn't need to talk to a psychologist, I needed to talk to a neurologist.

The previous Sunday, Wasps had played Worcester Warriors in a Premiership game which they won 40-33. In the 45th minute of that game, Worcester winger Bryce Heem took Le Roux out in the air. As you can see from the photo, Le Roux landed on his shoulder/head. The image tells you he had absolutely no control over how he landed. The match was stopped and Le Roux was stretchered off with concussion and Heem got a straight red.

Six days after being concussed, Le Roux was back playing a high-octane, ultra-competitive match and he dropped a ball going over the line. I watched the match to see what else he did that maybe told me that he was 10 per cent or 20 per cent off where he should be.

In the 33rd minute Luke McGrath tried a wiper kick from the base of a ruck and kicked directly to Le Roux, who caught it and called a mark. Le Roux, instead of finding a safe touch, kicked it long and Carbery set off on the counter. The trade of passes between Carbery and McFadden told much. Le Roux followed McFadden in off his wing, but the attempt at the tackle suggested to me that he didn't want to know. With plenty of tacklers on the inside, Carbery's pass back outside left Jack Conan with a free run in on the unguarded left wing. I turned off the television.

Le Roux was passed fit to play, but in my opinion was a long way off being fit for purpose.

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