Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber may need to pick one or two untried flyhalves this July if Damian Willemse is reassigned as a specialist fullback, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s been more than four months since the World Cup final in Yokohama, and I can’t stop thinking about how well the Springbok coaches – and specifically the medical and conditioning team – did to keep Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies fit for the majority of the 2019 Test season.
What’s more, I still can’t believe that Erasmus had the guts to pick only one specialist flyhalf in his match 23 across the World Cup playoffs.
Imagine if Pollard went down – as England prop Kyle Sinckler did – in the first five minutes of the final. Could Frans Steyn have filled the void as a distributor and game manager? And if Steyn took a hit and was subsequently stretchered off, could the Boks have won that final with Willie le Roux or Faf de Klerk standing in the No 10 channel?
Erasmus deserves credit for the risks he took – many of them calculated – over the course of that successful campaign. And yet, as the 2020 Test season looms, one wonders who is going to step up if Pollard or Jantjies – or both – break down before the opener against Scotland on 4 July.
The answer seems obvious. Damian Willemse would have been selected in the initial World Cup squad as a utility back if not for a serious injury setback. When Jesse Kriel broke down with a tournament-ending ailment, Willemse travelled to the Far East as a player who could cover flyhalf and fullback.
All that said, Willemse remains a work in progress. His individual skills are beyond doubt, but we are yet to see the 21-year-old controlling a contest and maximising the potential of that Stormers backline on a consistent basis.
Willemse has been running at No 15 in training this week and may start in that position against the Sharks this Saturday. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the Stormers coach wants the extra kicking option in the back three, given the tactical strengths of the Sharks. With Willemse starting at 15, Dillyn Leyds at 14, Jean-Luc du Plessis at 10 and Herschel Jantjies at 9, the Stormers will have the benefit of several strong kickers and decision-makers in the same lineup.
It’s a top-of-the-conference clash, though, and ideally you’d want your best players in their best positions. What will it say about Willemse if John Dobson picks him at 15 in the Stormers’ biggest game of the season? And if the franchise coaches are in regular consultation with Erasmus and Nienaber, what will it say about Willemse’s role with the Boks in the near future? What might it intimate for others who are vying for an opportunity at flyhalf?
Before we consider these questions, perhaps we should look at what Willemse may be up against as a specialist fullback in the coming Test season. Willie le Roux was one of the heroes of the World Cup final and will, bar injury, be the Boks’ first-choice 15 in 2020. Le Roux will also be tasked with mentoring an exciting group of understudies that should include Willemse, Warrick Gelant and Aphelele Fassi. The latter is on the national radar and is expected to feature at some point for the Boks this July.
The flyhalf cupboard, however, is relatively bare. Erasmus isn’t about to recall Morne Steyn. Manie Libbok has blown hot and cold for the Bulls over the past few seasons, while Jean-Luc du Plessis’ career at the Stormers has been stalled by injuries. Apart from Steyn, Jantjies and Willemse are the only South African players competing in the Super Rugby tournament who have played flyhalf at international level.
Curwin Bosch has enjoyed two brief opportunities with the Boks. He came off the bench against Argentina in Port Elizabeth in 2017, and started at fullback against Wales in Washington in 2018. Bosch has been backed as the Sharks first-choice No 10 in 2020, however, and has played with real authority on attack and when implementing the team’s kicking game.
That Bosch’s defence needs work is not up for debate. But if Willemse is being placed into the fullback category ahead of the July Tests, then surely Bosch’s selection as a flyhalf – either for the SA A matches or for the Test clashes against Scotland and Georgia – is more a probability than a possibility.
The alternative is for Erasmus and Nienaber to pick up from where they left off in Yokohama last November. If Pollard and Jantjies remain fit, they could get away with selecting two specialist 10s in the Test series. Jantjies could certainly use an extended run at Test level after serving as the team’s waterboy in the World Cup playoffs.
It’s the first season in a new World Cup cycle, though. If the management wants to experiment with the short and long term in mind, July is the time to do it.
Perhaps Willemse will indeed get a run at flyhalf in the event of an injury. Perhaps he will be backed to start against Georgia, either in a game for SA A or for the Boks.
But again, if the coaches believe that he is destined to become South Africa’s answer to Beauden Barrett – who, it has to be said, did serve a lengthy apprenticeship as a utility back before receiving the All Blacks’ No 10 jersey – Willemse has to start regularly at No 10 for his franchise. He has to be backed to learn his craft and to make the big plays in the big matches.
If his future is at fullback, then he has to be a regular feature at No 15 for the Stormers. What we do know for certain at this stage is that the 21-year-old has exceptional pace and awareness, not to mention a formidable kicking boot.