Wednesday 22 May 2019

'If you have a 60/40 chance as a white guy, you're not going to get the chance' - Ollie le Roux

Ollie le Roux acknowledges fans after playing his final home game for Leinster in 2008 before his return a year later. Picture credit; Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ollie le Roux acknowledges fans after playing his final home game for Leinster in 2008 before his return a year later. Picture credit; Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ollie le Roux's personality fits his enormous frame snugly. A retired player he may be, but shy and retiring he is not.

He is a chicken farmer, a business man, a property developer and an entrepeneur. He is a father, a husband, an ironman, he has swum with great white sharks and lived to tell the tale.

Leinster's Ollie Le Roux with Shane Horgan. Picture credit; Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Ollie Le Roux with Shane Horgan. Picture credit; Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

He was a rugby player, a Leinster cult hero. Above all, he can always call himself a Springbok.

A warm smile fixes on his face, just as it did when he was winning hearts, minds and matches as a rugby player during a stellar 15-year career that saw him play 54 times for his country.

Boks can often appear humourless, not least their grizzled forwards, but Le Roux was different.

He is fondly remembered in Leinster where he won a Magners League medal in 2008 and returned, fittingly, as a medical joker a year later, departing after the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster in 2009.

Le Roux celebrating Tri Nations Test victory over the All Blacks in 1998 with South Africa team-mates Mark Andrews (left) and Franko Smith. Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images
Le Roux celebrating Tri Nations Test victory over the All Blacks in 1998 with South Africa team-mates Mark Andrews (left) and Franko Smith. Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images

His eyes light up as he remembered watching "the big hiding" alongside 82,000 people in Croke Park. "I didn't like losing to them," he says with a more serious look.

An hour in his company in a Bloemfontein hotel is an hour well spent, jumping from his pride in the sporting prowess of his daughters to his experiences in shifting his 20-stone frame around an ironman course to his outspoken views about the Springboks' short-comings and the failings of his homeland.

Indeed, perhaps the only problem when interviewing Le Roux is knowing where to start.

The obvious place in the week Ireland take on his beloved Boks is with rugby, but it is hard to get the image of this large prop with two new hips taking on an event consisting of a 3.9km swim, a 180km cycle and a marathon.

Never mind that it wasn't the most daunting challenge he's taken on since he hung up his boots.

"Once you've finished playing what's the next challenge?" he says. "It could be business, there's many places that life takes you so that's what I just found with the ironman - it was such an amazing challenge.

"Rugby? I'd probably still be playing if I could, because of the way a team starts gelling and the fun, how you work together... a sense of belonging.


"When you finish, you miss that camaraderie. It's very dangerous, after the sport you become just another person going through everyday living.

"The younger kids aren't happy with that any more, they're not spending money on things, but on experiences. People are jealous of the experiences we could have on the rugby pitch, to win cups and travel the world.

"After the sport, how do you recreate those experiences?

"We did it in Port Elizabeth and there was an 80kmph wind - 25pc of the field didn't finish. The PE Ironman is supposed to the easiest in the world, but it was just crazy.

"You just had to keep on going, it was cold -luckily I'm heavy and big so the cold didn't bother me. Other people were falling by the wayside with hypothermia, but you just had to go on.

"At 7am the gun starts, at 12 at night it finished. I came in at 11.57, so I was actually going for that whole day. It was amazing.

"Those days you realise there's something bigger out there that will keep you going forward.

"People get obsessed with it sometimes which is maybe not a good thing but for a personal victory it's amazing."

Amazing, but not the most remarkable experience he'd been through.

"When I'd just had my first hip operation, in Plettenberg Bay, they had a 7-8km swim," he recalls.

"The Bay is known for the most great whites around that one point. You jump into the sea, swim through these shark-infested waters, all the okes (guys) around you.

"As we got through the point, around half a kilometre to go, the helicopter just dropped and they spotted a great white cruising between the swimmers, all the boats are picking the guys up - crazy!

"I saw the great white swimming away and said, 'We'll carry on', jumped in and carried on swimming.

"In my life I've never been so scared, the adrenaline was pumping and it was one of the most amazing things... That's an experience that nobody can take away from you.

"Life is about those experiences. It was the most vulnerable I've ever felt for two hours, 20 minutes. Freaky."

With four daughters, a farm and various business interests - not to mention his racing - to look after, Le Roux is no longer actively involved in rugby.

However, he remains a passionate, if deeply frustrated observer of the game.

The Boks are not the force of old, they arrive in Dublin on the back of a disappointing Rugby Championship - still among the top teams but miles off the one team they really compare themselves with; New Zealand.

There are a myriad of factors, starting with the weak South African economy and the perceived injustices of the politically-driven quota system that has led to an exodus of top players.

"If you look at our national side, there is really some players there who are just not good enough - white players and black players," Le Roux argues.

"It's not a colour thing for me, I don't care if they pick a whole black team, just pick the best.

"What happens is a lot of our players think they're being victimised. If you have a 60/40 chance as a white guy, you're not going to get the chance.

"So, you've got this talent pool that you're not developing, so what's happening with those guys?

"We've got 350 players who could probably play Super Rugby playing in Europe. When I came up, you came in as a youngster, bullet-proof and the next minute the okes would be hurting you.

"The big guys would give you a hiding when you needed it, they'd teach you and make you hard.

"Now, those guys are in Europe, Currie Cup has become an U-23 competition. The youngsters think they're good, but they lack that older generation to teach them the ropes.

"It is frustrating. We lost to Italy, to Japan. That was the biggest disgrace. When you see that, you think to yourself there is something wrong because there is enough talent here.

"Who are the guys involved in all of these Test matches? You realise there is a common denominator.

"There is a deep tumour in this country that's not being rectified. It starts with our administrators, our leaders, our coaching; Just to look at Leinster.

"You see the same faces that evolve every year, they know the Leinster culture, they know where they want to go and they've got that succession going.

"In South Africa, you don't see that. We want to quickly fix it, we lack that culture. They might win, a one-off performance, but it's a much more deep-rooted problem out there.

"That arrogance is getting to a point when saying things isn't going to change things, you just get tired."

Rassie Erasmus is heading home with a mandate for change and Le Roux believes his old coach has a big job on his hands.

"It's going to be very tough for him, our problems need a five-year period to fix and it needs all the right guys," he sighs.

"He's coming into a culture where our forwards are coached by guys who never played for the national team. How is he going to tell the players how to play for the Springboks?

"Rassie can tell you, because he played for the Springboks - he was phenomenal. But these guys can't tell the Springboks what our ethos is, what our character is. That's his problem.

"What does Allister Coetzee know about Springboks? Nothing. He's got no right to even mention the word Springbok, because he's not a Springbok. He's got no right to even have an opinion about the Springboks.

"Same with Heyneke Meyer, Jake White. Ja, he won a World Cup by hook or by crook, but Gert Smal played for the Springboks, someone like that comes and says something, he's been there... for Rassie to build that culture, he must to get those guys working at grassroots level.

"All the guys look like they're using the Springboks as a stepping-stone to get money. You don't see guys staying in the system and developing.

"A great example is Jonathan Sexton. The first time I saw him training I said to Michael Cheika, 'Jeez, this guy is a good player, I really enjoyed playing with him. Why don't you pick him?'

"He says, 'No, 'he's still two, three years away from being the complete fly-half. We don't want to expose him'.

"In South Africa, we take the guys at 10 and we hang them out to dry. 'He must find his feet'.

"It's a very different culture, Jonathan's probably one of the top four fly-halves in the world now and he's grown into his position - just gotten better as he's gotten older.

"That's the difference, that's Rassie's different challenge. How does he get all of the guys working together?"

Often, the Springboks mirror the mood of a troubled nation.

Twenty-two years after Nelson Mandela smiled that smile and Francois Pienaar lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, last week it became likely that the World Cup is heading back to the Rainbow Nation for the first time since 1995.

It has long been a beautiful place plagued by deep-rooted problems.

"We're supposed to be this one, unified country but on the one side there is so much pain and on the other there are guys that feel guilt. How do we rectify it?" he wonders aloud.


"On the other side, we have the biggest gangsters. The way they're looting everything in this country is...

"The stuff at grassroots level, we're worried about water, about sewage running in the streets. For poor people in townships it's even worse.

"So there's a big socio-economic problem in South Africa that we have to fix, but it's not like we have free cash running around because that just gets looted! You get angry at those guys, because if they used the money right then how much further along could we be.

"Education, healthcare - one of my guys on the farm had a stroke, went to hospital and he should have been alright, but three days later he died.

"His family are without a provider now and you can only provide so much for them.

"You get angry, because it is the poor people who suffer the worst.

"Underlying it, in South Africa there's this amazing feeling that we're trying to do things right, do the right things and trying to make a difference but it's a tough environment.

"You don't have freebies when it comes to education or health and so it gets hard on you personally.

"We've got the potential, the saddest thing is when you look at a rugby player and think, 'He has so much potential but he never reached it because things held him back'.

"It's the same with South Africa, we always have this potential to go places but we're held back."

And yet, Le Roux insists it remains a great place to raise your kids - especially ones with huge sporting potential like his two older daughters.

The eldest, Chloe (14) has a shot at making the next Olympics as a swimmer, while Donna (13) is a national tennis champion who was competing at the modern pentathlon world championships in September.

He is not, he insists, a competitive dad but they do help as a motivation for his training.

"I've got to keep it going, a big guy like me," he says with a smile. "If you don't look after yourself it's going to hurt, your body just becomes too weak.

"So you have to train, keep up your fitness. I've got some beautiful daughters, so I have to be able to sort out the youngsters as well! I make sure I feel fit and strong."

A big man, with bigger opinions, he bounds out of the hotel with the same enthusiasm he came in with.

For all the frustration, there is an underlying passion for his homeland summed up in his parting words.

"It sounds like we're negative, it's just realistic. It's not pretty at the moment but things change quickly and you must make the change," he concludes. "But South Africa gives you experiences."

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