Dillyn Leyds has been a star performer for the Stormers this year and is being mentioned in a national context once again, as reflected by his call up to the latest Bok camp, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Leyds is playing with unbridled enjoyment again. The Stormers utility back has rediscovered his mojo, his swagger, his natural flair for the game. Describe it any way you like, the long and short of it is that he has been a man on a mission in 2019.
To add to the context of Leyds’ newfound form in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, it’s important to rewind to 2017. That was the year Leyds dazzled his way into the Springbok side after a sequence of standout performances for the Stormers, including one of the most memorable individual moments of magic from that season of Super Rugby.
Many fans will still remember the occasion the wing completed a ‘miracle’ back-hand pass from a seated position, with the ball perfectly finding a flying SP Marais, who went on to score a match-defining try in the thrilling seventh-round win over the Chiefs.
It would prove to be a season of happy memories for Leyds, who went on to make his Bok debut off the bench in a win over France in June 2017, the first of nine Test appearances that year (including six starts on the wing).
For Leyds, it was a steady start to his Test career, but as a team, the Boks endured a sequence of disappointing results, ultimately leading to the restructuring of the coaching staff as Allister Coetzee’s tenure came to an end.
‘In 2017, I’d played some pretty good rugby, and found myself fortunate to be in the Bok setup,’ Leyds reflects. ‘The Tests I played served as a massive confidence-booster for me, especially after the injury troubles I had the year before. I really worked hard, and it was a good reward for all the effort I’d put in.
‘Going into the next year, though, there were a new set of coaches [at national level] and with that comes different ideas, game plans and personnel. From my side, I have to be honest with myself and acknowledge that even though I played a lot of Super Rugby in 2018, I wasn’t in the best form.
‘I found myself so desperately trying to put myself in a position to earn selection for the Springboks that I actually started to try and force things, and went away from what had worked for me before. I lost a bit of enjoyment in what I was doing, and my play suffered as a result.’
In a professional sports landscape of bland quotes and commonplace cliches, Leyds is a refreshingly honest interviewee. His self-admitted drop in form, and the emergence of other top-performing wings such as Aphiwe Dyantyi, S’bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi saw him miss out on Bok selection in 2018, with coach Rassie Erasmus also opting to look elsewhere when it came to fullback.
Leyds says he never took it personally: ‘The way I went about it was to sit down and ask to myself: “Am I playing rugby that is worthy of representing my country?”. The straight up answer was “no”. It was difficult to accept that, and to not be part of the national setup, but there were a number of other players in really good form, and they were rewarded for that.’
Having missed out on Bok selection, and realising that he was in need of a fresh start, Leyds appeared set for a stint in Japan after Super Rugby last year. However, as fate would have it, the move fell through, with the 26-year-old instead heading into a Currie Cup campaign that proved to be a real blessing in disguise.
‘I was so grateful for that Currie Cup season in the end,’ he says. ‘We had a really good team environment, and were encouraged to go out and express ourselves. I found that enjoyment factor again, and started to find some form. The team also did really [topping the table on the way to hosting the final], and that obviously made it easier to find some rhythm in my game again.’
It allowed Leyds to head into the 2019 pre-season with what he describes as a ‘new energy and excitement’, having realised that he had been guilty of trying to overdo things during an inconsistent Super Rugby campaign last year.
With a number of Stormers players also either on the 2018 end-of-year tour with the Boks, or taking up stints overseas, Leyds suddenly found himself as one of the more senior leaders in a youthful pre-season squad. It was also a time when there was a fair amount of upheaval behind the scenes at Western Province rugby, with rumours of background infighting and financial trouble contributing to a rather disruptive environment.
To make matters worse, the Stormers’ season got off to the worst possible start when they suffered a humbling 40-3 defeat to the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus.
‘It was a bit difficult for the guys to stay focused on what we were doing,’ Leyds admits. ‘But as senior players and a core group, we decided that we didn’t have a say in terms of what was going on in the background and in the boardrooms, so we just wanted to focus on what we could control and to work hard on the field.
‘We just knew that we needed to focus on our jobs, and that was to play rugby, so we tried to distance ourselves from everything else that was going on. Yes, our campaign did get off to really the worst possible start [against the Bulls], but I think we showed some real fight after that.’
Indeed, by the midway point of the Super Rugby season, the Stormers’ two most memorable results had come in impressive wins over the Rebels in Melbourne (41-24), and a reverse against the selfsame Bulls (24-23).
It surely wasn’t a complete coincidence that Leyds emerged as a standout performer on both occasions. Against the Rebels, he scored a stunning solo try, effectively set up two more, beat eight defenders and made 68m. The speedster also walked away with the Man of the Match award against the Bulls at the end of April, superbly creating a try in addition to making 104m, 13 carries and four clean breaks.
It’s around this time that Stormers coach Robbie Fleck was moved to provide an understandable ringing endorsement of Leyds’ influence.
‘With Dillyn, it’s all about game time and getting used to playing regularly and building that confidence. If you look back two years ago, he was outstanding and that’s when he got that Bok callup. If you remember that offload against the Chiefs … I feel like he’s finding that sort of form again now.’
When reminded of these comments, Leyds offers a wry chuckle, before trying to unpack the mindset shift that he has brought into the 2019 season.
‘It’s just really good to be playing regularly, and I’m never one to shy away from game time. I always want to be involved as much as I can, and I think a key thing for me has not just been the increased involvement, but smarter involvement.
‘I’ve really worked a lot with [assistant coaches] Paul Feeney and Dawie Snyman about knowing when to pick my moments. Before, I’d tend to try and make something happen every time I had my hands in the ball. Now I’ve realised the importance of being a link and creating opportunities for other players around me.’
Although Leyds is suddenly being spoken of in a national context, he is fully aware that the Boks are well stocked in the back-three department. Whatever the case may be, he is just grateful to be enjoying his rugby once again.
‘I’m definitely still working really hard towards achieving my Bok ambitions and hopefully I’m hitting form at the right time to bring myself back into contention for World Cup selection. Obviously that’s the dream for all players, and I’m no different, but whatever happens I just want to know that I gave everything I could, and to be able to be honest with myself when reflecting on the type of rugby I played. As long as I can sit back and say that I gave myself the best shot to be in contention, then I’ll be happy.’
LEYDS ON …
PLAYING AT WING AND FULLBACK
‘It wasn’t that long ago when I really was focused on trying to cement myself in one position, but as things have gone on, I’ve realised it’s probably not going to happen, and I’ve made peace with jumping between the two positions. It helps me understand the roles of those two positions and hopefully it can benefit me in one way or another down the line.’
PLAYING UNDER INCOMING STORMERS COACH JOHN DOBSON
‘Everyone enjoys working with Dobbo, he’s a great character and is good at getting guys on the same page and creating a team environment that people want to be involved in. I’m excited, he has been involved with the coaching team in Super Rugby this year and everyone is looking forward to what he can do. Hopefully some of the boys will stick around and we’ll have a squad that can have a fair crack at Super Rugby next year.’