Just over twelve months ago, Wasps got knocked out by Leinster in the quarter final of the Champions Cup. Dai Young’s men lost that game 32-17, with the Irish team fairly comfortable winners in the end, despite a mini second half rally from the Coventry side. There was a passage of play though, when the team was trailing 8-0 which might have altered the outcome. Kurtley Beale made a break from just outside his 22 and after a mazy run, teed up Willie Le Roux who ran in what seemed like an vital try to bring Wasps right back into the game. 8-5, conversion to follow, game very much on. Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. The Television Match Offical had a look at the grounding after protests from Jonny Sexton, and the try was chalked off as Le Roux was deemed to have dropped the ball when diving over the line. Wasps never recovered and were as good as out of the contest and the tournament by half time.
Post match, this disallowed try was quite the topic of conversation amongst supporters, with Le Roux receiving significant criticism about the incident. His form at the time was perhaps a little inconsistent, he seemed to be struggling to impose himself on games, and this was a high profile mistake in a high profile match which bought these issues into sharper context. There was significant numbers of fans who were suggesting his place in the team was not warranted, and I would probably include myself in this if I am being honest.
Fast forward to Sunday 29th April 2018. I have been joined at the Ricoh Arena by my brother and two of his excitable children, who were at their first rugby game. We make our way to the south stand by the players entrance, where the Wasps lads are always brilliant at chatting to supporters, posing for photographs and signing autographs. First player we see is Le Roux. My brother marches his son over, and explains to my nephew, in a volume that ensures the Wasps number 15 hears, that “this is one of the best full backs in the world, you need to get his autograph”. Le Roux looks embarrassed, and I feel embarrassed at that point about ever questioning his value to the club. He provides his autograph, does the same for my kids as well, and then goes on to set up all four tries in a victory that secures Wasps place in the play offs, without appearing to break sweat.
This season, Willie Le Roux has proved all of us doubters wrong. This season he has set up twenty one tries and counting in the Premiership. The next closest is thirteen, and that is across the whole league. That is absolutely phenomenal, and almost ridiculous. Twenty one! He has been the model of consistency, regularly the man of the match, and I would suggest one of the favourites for the Wasps player of the season. In less than a year he has become one of Wasps most important players, one of the most exciting backs in the league, one of the first names on the team sheet, and was named today by Robert Kitson who writes for the Guardian’s newspaper in their premiership team of the year. Unlike other sports journalists, Kitson does not appear to dabble too much in sensationalist headlines, writing very well about the club game, so appears as well placed as any to make such judgements.
Reflecting on this turnaround, I would suggest there are two big reasons for this transformation. When he joined Wasps, I think he needed a break, rather than being thrown into the team. He came to the club in February, straight off the back of playing in Super Rugby, followed by a Japanese team. If you want an insight into the impact the proposed global rugby calendar will have on players, have a look at Le Roux. Players need time to rest and recover from what is one of the most brutal sports in the world. It is no coincidence that his inspired performances this year are after a proper pre-season and time away from the game.
The second reason, in my view, is that he is now clearly playing in his best and most influential position. He was not last season, as he was almost always playing on the wing, premiership final aside. I would suggest he would be completely wasted on the wing now. Add to all of this having to adapt to new team mates, a different league, a different country, the pressure of being a marquee signing, and the joys of the English weather. All genuine issues when you consider it, though as supporters we can often be experts at ignoring these obstacles.
With the final league game of the season this weekend, I think the Wasps full back can look back on this term with real pride. Regardless of what happens in the next two, and hopefully three games, he has had a magnificent 2017-2018. Wasps supporters have being incredibly spoilt in recent years to have seen Charles Piutau and Kurtley Beale operating at fifteen, genuine world class superstars. Let us hope there are many more seasons of seeing Willie Le Roux in Wasps colours, because he is now up there with them, with his abilities now simply unquestionable. What a turnaround, what a player.