Damian de Allende’s role in the Springboks’ match strategy is going to become even more important as the Rugby World Cup heads into the playoffs, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
There aren’t many players who polarises opinion as much as Springbok centre Damian de Allende. His supporters say he is strong and unrelenting, while his detractors call him one-dimensional and slow. It’s a never-ending mudslinging contest on social media between the two factions.
But there is one man who loves De Allende unconditionally. The man whose opinion matters most. His name is Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who is loving his inside centre’s performances so far at this World Cup.
De Allende’s detractors’ biggest gripe is that he doesn’t offer enough on attack, creating space for his outside backs, or that he dies with the ball in contact without looking to offload.
The frustration also stems from the fact that De Allende actually has a sweet pass and a good offload game, which made him one of the leading centres in Vodacom Super Rugby in 2015 and indeed at the World Cup in that same year.
We haven’t seen much of those little offloads since, but it’s because Erasmus’ Boks doesn’t play that game. De Allende’s first option is not too pass, and that is as a result of strategy and not the player’s instincts.
But in the framework of the Springboks’ game plan, De Allende is an important cog, along with the scrumhalf, on attack.
The Springboks’ primary weapon is the box kick from the base of the ruck. You won’t see more than four phases from the South Africans with ball in hand in their own half against the big teams, unless there is massive overlap on the outside.
But from first phase it’s all about De Allende running into the vacuum and giving the Boks momentum on attack. He seldom loses the ball in contact or is unable to get over the advantage line, which gives his forwards and fellow backs a good target to hit when cleaning out to provide quick ball.
But De Allende also has the ability to make metres from a standing start, which he did very well against the All Blacks and Italy. For a man weighing over 100kg, he has some quick feet to beat the first defender before pumping those legs to gain some momentum.
It may sound like a simple thing, but having a player on the outside who can secure you ball and make a couple of metres without turning it over is huge, especially at this World Cup where the counter-attacking has been deadly.
To really appreciate De Allende’s quality in this regard you just have to look at his stats so far in the World Cup. De Allende has made 111 metres from 31 carries, which includes beating nine defenders. For a guy who supposedly looks for contact, that is a very good return of almost three metres per carry.
Ireland’s Bundee Aki is a similar inside centre, who more or less does the same job for Ireland with his powerful carrying. But from his 15 carries, before Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, he made just 36 metres with zero defenders beaten.
This just shows the work that De Allende goes through with ball in hand. I think the man himself would probably enjoy a bit more freedom on attack, but, again, that’s not really part of the script.
The Bok inside centre says they are given license to express themselves on the park after being asked about his reputation as a direct runner. Obviously he would say that, but that is just not how the Boks go about their business. Whether we like it or not.
‘We all have license to express ourselves on the field. But sometimes it’s quite tough. Like I said earlier, teams put your skill set under pressure,’ De Allende said.
‘Sometimes it is quite tough to make a 50-50 pass. If that pass doesn’t stick you could concede seven points. Sometimes you can take a few risks and if the opportunity is there to do it, I will do it. But if you’re in two minds, it’s better to keep hold of the ball.’
But his role is going to be become even more important in the playoffs, as the Boks are likely to use him even more, while also kicking a lot more in the one-off knockout matches. His ability to make metres and hold on to possession in the vacuum is vital in a direct game plan.
But he also does a massive amount of good on defence, and almost plays as a fourth loose forward when the Boks don’t have the ball.
His work disrupting the opposition breakdown, especially in the wide areas, almost goes unnoticed. De Allende and his centre partner Lukyanyo Am are two fantastic players on the ground.
‘He is putting on a lot of pressure at the breakdown. I guess he is not a natural stealer, but his counter-rucking and his decision-making at the defensive breakdown is excellent,’ former Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said earlier this year.
‘That sort of work gets unnoticed. His work rate off the ball, especially on defence is outstanding. He is a very good defensive player, and understands it well. He fills the gaps.’
It’s maybe time to cut De Allende a bit of slack. He is a key player of the Boks and a guy who deserves everyone’s respect.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets