The 24-year-old has been chosen in the number 15 jersey ahead of other strong challengers like Zane Kirchner and Pat Lambie, with the coach satisfied that the exciting Cheetahs star not only has the vision and skill that reminds one of the great Andre Joubert, but is also solid under the high ball and has the kicking game to succeed in the rain and mud of Europe.
“Willie was the one guy who I wanted to see how he went in these conditions and wasn’t sure about, so he has done wonderfully well to prove himself on this tour,” Meyer said on Wednesday.
“I felt at one stage that his kicking was not good enough for international level and I also felt he was suspect under the high ball. But he has worked hard at those aspects of his game, and I have to give credit to our kicking coach Louis Koen for the way that he has helped Willie with his development.
“When I was first exposed to Willie as a player in the early part of the year, he struck me as a player who could be coached, and I think that has been proved correct.
“The big test was how he would develop, and he has now developed to the point where he is a good all-round fullback who can play a tactical game. He was a 50/50 choice coming on the tour, as Zane Kirchner had played well in the Rugby Championship.
“But Willie has proved he can play at this level now and do something special in the fullback position. I do believe fullback is his best position, but he can contribute too by running into flyhalf in certain situations. I am very pleased with the way we have managed his development through the course of the year and am happy for the player.”
The Springbok team to play the dangerous French on Saturday shows six changes to the side that saw off the Scots 28-0 last weekend, with the returns of Tendai Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis to the front row, Eben Etzebeth to the second row and Morne Steyn and Ruan Pienaar reunited as the half-backs. Coenie Oosthuizen will start for the first time in place of injured tighthead Frans Malherbe.
The bench shows a 6-2 split in favour of forwards, with an entire tight five included. Pieter-Steph du Toit, covering both the number five lock and the blindside flank, and Siya Kolisi have both been selected due to the injury concerns over Willem Alberts and Francois Louw during the week.
The controversial departure of Fourie du Preez back home sees Pienaar promoted and Jano Vermaak, the Toulouse scrumhalf called up this week, leapfrogs Louis Schreuder for a place amongst the replacements.
While Du Preez’s departure from the squad was a sudden one and totally unexpected, the team management said it had been planned beforehand and they gave a puzzling combination of excuses for it: He has just become a father; his back is playing up; and it was agreed with his Japanese club that he would only play the first two games on tour.
Of course the 31-year-old’s workload does need to be managed and Meyer getting a look at Pienaar and Vermaak with an eye on the 2015 World Cup is no bad thing.
But the fact that the arrangement was not mentioned until after Du Preez was already on his way back to Pretoria and the various explanations given for it, suggests the whole scenario could have been better handled.
Perhaps Meyer did not want to tip off the French that the 2007 World Cup-winner would not be playing against them and there is no doubt the Springboks have targeted this weekend’s match in Paris as the most important challenge on tour.
The last time South Africa beat the French in France was in 1997 and they have lost 10-20 and 20-26 in their two previous meetings at the Stade de France, in 2001 and 2005. But the stadium is, of course, the scene of glorious triumphs in the 2007 World Cup, against Argentina and England (twice, including the final).
Despite the absence of Du Preez, who for many was the prime architect of the 2007 success, there is still plenty of experience in this Springbok team.
Pienaar himself is a senior player with 73 caps, while the presence of JP Pietersen (50), Jaque Fourie (71), Jean de Villiers (95), Bryan Habana (94) and Steyn (53) outside him contributes to a backline with a record-equalling 447 caps.
Loosehead prop Mtawarira (52) and hooker Du Plessis (56) are the only members of the pack to have more than 50 caps, but they can expect plenty of backing from Flip van der Merwe, Alberts and Louw, who are all experienced international campaigners now.
Great things are expected from Duane Vermeulen, Etzebeth and Oosthuizen as their careers progress and there is the added excitement of Lourens Adriaanse probably making his Springbok debut, at last, from the bench.
Steyn has recovered from his niggly back to replace Lambie at flyhalf and, as solid and defensively secure as the Sharks talent has been, the most-capped Springbok number 10 offers a more trustworthy boot in a match that will see a hugely fired-up French team out to defend their recent fine record at home against South Africa.
The other notable selection is that of Bakkies Botha on the bench, his performance against Scotland being enough to prolong his international comeback for at least another week.
His sort of physicality and experience is exactly what the Springboks will need in a Test that is sure to be overflowing with passion, intensity and pressure. DM
Team: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-JP Pietersen, 13-Jaque Fourie, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Flip van der Merwe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Coenie Oosthuizen, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Gurthro Steenkamp, 18-Lourens Adriaanse, 19-Bakkies Botha, 20-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21-Siya Kolisi, 22-Jano Vermaak, 23-Pat Lambie.
Photo: Willie le Roux scores a try against Scotland during their rugby union match at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh Scotland, November 17, 2013. (REUTERS/Russell Cheyne)
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