The confirmation that Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse will play exclusively at flyhalf in 2020 is good news for both the duo and the Springboks, writes DYLAN JACK.
It is slightly ironic that the news came during a time where two promising South Africans in Inny Radebe and Garth April made headlines for different reasons. Radebe set social media alight this week when he released a freestyle rap video.
In the track, Radebe makes his feelings clear about the treatment he received from the Sharks. Once one of the country’s brightest young talents at flyhalf, Radebe’s career has spiralled downhill ever since getting injured in his Vodacom Super Rugby debut. After a short move back to the Lions, where he played his youth rugby, Radebe returned to Durban this year to try to get his career back on track but has basically been relegated to playing for College Rovers and in the Rugby Challenge, something befitting his talent.
In the same week, another former promising Sharks youngster in Garth April has appeared on the Sunwolves’ books. Much like Radebe, April looked like he might be the next big thing at flyhalf but after breaking through professionally in 2015 and 2016, and coming within an inch of earning a Springbok cap under Allister Coetzee, he subsequently struggled to find game time in the following two seasons. Now 28 years old, April has found a new home in Japan, where he has been plying his trade at the Shining Arcs and is one of 13 new players to be named in the Sunwolves squad for their final Super Rugby tournament.
The reason for recounting both April and Radebe’s stories is that they seem particularly relevant in a period when South African franchises have effectively committed themselves to fully developing another two up-and-coming flyhalf talents in Bosch and Willemse. Both players have found themselves shifted between their first-choice positions (at 10) and fullback, after coming through as flyhalves.
Concerns about Bosch’s defensive ability, as well as the return of Robert du Preez from Western Province, meant that Bosch was unable to play in his primary position. In the 2018 Super Rugby season, Bosch played all 17 of his Super Rugby appearances as a fullback. Even Du Preez’s loss of form in 2019 was not enough for Bosch retain the No 10 jersey on a regular basis.
However, Du Preez’s departure to join his younger brothers in Manchester permanently, has opened up a gap at flyhalf. Sharks coach Sean Everitt was unambiguous when it came to where Bosch will play during his tenure.
‘If we have an injury at fullback I will ask Boeta Chamberlain or Lwazi Mvovo to play there before I’d ask Curwin to – we want him to specialise as a flyhalf,’ Everitt said.
Willemse’s shift to fullback is something that has been more carefully considered. It is quite clear that the push to give Willemse time in the No 15 jersey came from SA Rugby, as Rassie Erasmus looked to develop a utility player who could potentially cover 10, 12 and 15. This was before Frans Steyn began his successful push for a place in the World Cup squad, and ultimately the veteran’s availability meant that Willemse missed out on a place in the initial 31-man Bok squad.
During a pre-season media briefing, John Dobson made it quite clear that Willemse would be considered as a flyhalf first and foremost in the Stormers squad next season. Despite again being shifted during a loan spell with Saracens (which could do the Paul Roos Old Boy some good in the long run), the loss of Josh Stander to Japan means that Willemse and Jean-Luc du Plessis are the two senior playmakers at the Stormers.
Without the concern of constantly to adjust to a different position, with its own unique challenges both defensively and offensively, the duo can now focus on working on their weaknesses at flyhalf and bettering their strengths.
The Springboks have confirmed that they will be playing Tests against Scotland and Georgia during the July international window. Without being disrespectful to either nation, there is a chance to build depth at flyhalf by giving both Bosch and Willemse a real developmental opportunity there, while allowing Handre Pollard to settle in France, where he has joined a number of fellow South Africans at Montpellier.
That is not to say Pollard should be discarded entirely in 2020, of course, but if it comes to a battle to get him released in July, SA Rugby could prioritise giving Bosch and Willemse a chance to really showcase their talents in the Test arena, with Elton Jantjies mentoring both. But I digress.
When looking ahead to the British & Irish Lions tour, the Springboks will need to build some real depth at flyhalf. If the Boks can enter the series with three or four players who are more than comfortable playing Test rugby, that could give their chances of a second series win a real boost.
With this new commitment, perhaps Bosch and Willemse can go on to do what April and Radebe could not, and realise their talents in their best position on the highest stage.