Coach Heyneke Meyer believes Damian de Allende can bring a “new dimension” to Springbok backline play, but the modest centre is promising no revolution himself.
De Allende is very much the modern backline player – big, strong and quick – standing 1.89m tall, weighing 104kg and fast enough to play on the wing for the Stormers, and also skilful enough to create many tries for his team-mates with his deft offloads.
“He’s a big guy but he’s skilful as well, he has the soft touches, runs beautiful lines and gets the ball away. I think he can bring a new dimension to our backline and I feel he can be superb at 13,” Meyer said on Wednesday after announcing De Allende would make his debut against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The player himself was reticent to talk about all his skills.
“I don’t know about skills, but I know Heyneke wants a physical presence in midfield. We want to play direct rugby and earn the right to go wide,” De Allende said.
Despite playing just once before at outside centre in his senior career – for Western Province against the Blue Bulls in a Currie Cup match last year – De Allende is relatively unfazed about wearing the number 13 jersey on his Test debut.
“It does make my debut more challenging, but I’ll have Jean de Villiers on my inside and it will be very exciting. I’ve had the one game at 13 at a high level and, although number 12 is my best position, playing outside centre will be just about making the right decision at the right time. I need to identify space on the outside and try and get behind the defence,” De Allende said.
The 22-year-old probably has the Varsity Cup to thank for his rapid rise to the international stage. He only started to take rugby seriously at the age of 15 and, going to the unfashionable, in rugby terms, Milnerton High School possibly explains why he was missed by the Western Province Craven Week selectors. But his coach, Hein Kriek, pushed him to go to the provincial U19 trials and he was snapped up by the team which would win their age-group Currie Cup in 2010.
A stint at Alan Zondagh’s academy followed, from where he played for Hamiltons, before UCT snapped him up in 2012 for the Varsity Cup and he was then able to star on national TV, showing his attacking and defensive skills to great effect.
“The Varsity Cup helped a lot, it gave me some TV time, and then Allister Coetzee and Robbie Fleck moved me to inside centre,” De Allende said.
The former opening bowler for Western Province U18 is clearly not just the sort of one-dimensional battering ram South African rugby is trying to move away from. The fact that his biggest inspiration is the diminutive Gio Aplon says it all.
“I really look up to Gio, he’s not the biggest but he’s a phenomenal player and he has a massive heart,” De Allende said.
The son of Spanish descendants said the emotion of playing for the Springboks will be “a bit overwhelming” on Saturday.
“Playing for the Springboks is every rugby player’s dream, it’s one of the most unique teams in the world, more diverse than many others,” De Allende said.
His mother, father and brother will be in the stands at Loftus Versfeld to see how a Springbok who has travelled one of the more unusual routes to the Green and Gold does.