The clarity and commitment to continue backing Damian Willemse to settle at flyhalf can only benefit the talented youngster going forward, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On 7 May, Willemse turned 22.
It’s with this in mind that it’s quite mind-boggling how so many pundits have been quick to write him off as a flyhalf, with many suggesting he isn’t equipped for the role.
Again, he is just 22, so why do so many expect him to already be our version of a perfect 10?
Over the past few years Willemse has shifted regularly between flyhalf (21 starts in Vodacom Super Rugby since 2017) and fullback (11 Super Rugby starts since 2017).
More than capable of playing in both positions, it’s understandable that he has been deployed between the two key berths, while at national level the general view is that his Test transition should continue at fullback.
This question of ‘Is he a flyhalf or fullback?’ has also followed another talented youngster in Curwin Bosch, but earlier this year, it was already clear to see the benefits of his undivided backing at 10.
Playing solely at flyhalf at the start of Super Rugby, Bosch recently told SARugbymag.co.za that having the opportunity to play consistently in his preferred position – which came with the directive to learn from his mistakes rather than fear making them – had been key to him regaining his confidence.
‘In a position like 10, I believe you need to play there consistently to become better at it,’ he commented. ‘I was having a conversation with Eddie Jones when we were at the Barbarians [towards the end of last year], and it was interesting to hear him say that Dan Carter only really became a great 10 at the age of about 28.’
Bosch’s reference to the quote from Jones was revealing, and again served as a reminder that it takes time for anyone – even someone as gifted as Carter – to truly come to grips with the role of directing a team from arguably rugby’s most pivotal position.
It’s also no coincidence that no World Cup has been won by a team with a flyhalf younger than 24. Just last year, the All Blacks boldly backed relatively inexperienced flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, then 25, at the World Cup but even that move backfired.
Closer to home, the Handre Pollard who guided the Springboks to the World Cup title in Japan was a vastly different (read better) all-round general than the 21-year-old version who performed at the 2015 global showpiece.
But, back to the case at hand, which is that Willemse has importantly once again received the unequivocal backing of Stormers coach John Dobson to continue his development at flyhalf.
‘There has been a lot of emotion and it has been a big thing, the debate about Damian Willemse,’ Dobson stated on Monday. ‘But if you look at his game analytically – yes, on penalties he doesn’t kick the ball as far out as he can and his goal-kicking rate probably [isn’t where it should be] – but jeepers, you have a kid who is fearless on defence and is a great passer. It is up to us as the coaches to help him with the game-management stuff.
‘Our kicking game wasn’t good enough, but to put that all on Damian would be wrong,’ Dobson added. ‘Our kicking off 9 wasn’t what it should have been and our exits weren’t organised enough. So I think that has put a bit of emotion on Damian. We feel, when we looked at it though, that Damian has a massive future at flyhalf.’
So, there it is.
As Dobson pointed out, in key areas such as defence and distribution, Willemse is an immensely gifted player.
Game management will come with experience, while some of the shortcomings around his kicking game can also undoubtedly be fine-tuned with some specialist coaching.
Willemse has all the raw ingredients at his disposal. Now, with clarity and the reaffirmed commitment from his coaching group, there is every reason to look forward to the next chapter of the 22-year-old‘s career development.