Rob Kearney and Ireland beware: South Africa's 'pest' Willie le Roux needs controlling
Rob Kearney began the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa on the replacements' bench. He replaced the injured Lee Byrne midway through the First Test and did not look back. By the end of a losing tour he had confirmed himself as the world's best fullback.
Five years on and a shared mantle has passed - via Israel Dagg - to Willie le Roux and Israel Folau. Irish supporters should get the opportunity to behold both players in action during the November internationals. Rob Kearney will be there too. His early season form was much better than his stiff back. If he can get both on an upward curve he should provide Ireland with attacking and aerial weapons.
Le Roux made his Test debut in July 2013 against Italy and showed enough in South Africa's summer series to become Heyneke Meyer's first-choice fullback for The Rugby Championship. He made four of his six appearances on the wing, scoring three times, but made the fifteen jersey his own in 2014.
During the summer, Le Roux proved too hot, and evasive, for the Welsh defence to handle. His booming kicks further exposed the Welsh backs after their Six Nations trauma against Ireland while a deft chip set up Bryan Habana for a fine score. He finished off a fine outing in Durban by scorching George North down the left wing. In that match and the follow-up in Nelspruit, in which he also scored a try, Le Roux was daring and confident under the high ball.
Warren Gatland described him as 'a pest' but agreed with Meyer than he was the best fullback in world rugby. The South African coach told reporters, "He is playing with a lot of confidence and has a licence to express himself. I am very happy about his progress. I challenged him to improve his aerial skills and defence last season and he did that very well."
Le Roux proved his attacking nous again as Scotland were flayed 55-6 at Port Elizabeth. The Cheetahs star has an innate ability to find a gap in the defences and a stint at out-half in his late teens, he attests, gave him a greater understanding of tactics and working with, and against, space.
Assists continued but the tries dried up during this year's Rugby Championship and it was noticeable how both Australia and New Zealand restricted kicking to him unless absolutely necessary.
It is an issue that Kearney faced in 2012 and 2013 and teams sought to limit his gateways into the game.
Joe Schmidt will drill a similar message into his teams. Ireland will also be given fair warning of the fullback's willingness to chip behind pressing lines and running at outside shoulders when he hits his straps out wide.
If Ireland can bottle up the Springbok genius they can reward themselves by studying next Schmidt dossier, marked 'Folau'.