Rather than shying away from his value as a utility player, the Springbok coaches are getting the best out of Damian Willemse, writes DYLAN JACK.
The Lions series acted as something of a passing of the baton between Frans Steyn and Willemse.
Steyn has for much of his career been the poster child for how one’s ability to play in multiple positions can both hinder and help one’s rugby career.
In close to 70 caps over 15 years, Steyn has played for the Springboks at wing, centre, fullback and flyhalf. He is undeniably among the most talented players to represent his country and very much one of the most successful Springboks ever, as far as his haul of medals go.
It was Steyn’s ability to provide effective cover to nearly every backline position that was the key to former Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ implementation of the six-two split between forwards and backs on the bench during the 2019 World Cup win.
Having that extra forward on the bench allowed the starting Springbok pack to empty the tank, without the fear that there wouldn’t be someone to replace them when they tired. In this regard, Steyn is something of an unsung hero of 2019, especially as he didn’t get too many minutes on the park.
However, there are still those that question whether Steyn could have been an even greater player, had he chosen to focus on one position.
This point was raised during the documentary on Peter de Villiers’ reign as Springbok coach. In the documentary, De Villiers explains how he wanted Steyn as a successor to Jean de Villiers at inside centre. As part of this, Steyn had to serve something of a learnership period under the then-future Springbok captain. However, it is quite clear that Steyn didn’t exactly buy into the idea and would leave for France in 2009.
“He could have become the most-capped Springbok, the opportunities that would have come to him,” Peter de Villiers explained during the documentary. “That’s what I mentioned to him. But he thought that the here and now was more important.”
Much like in Steyn’s case, it has been questioned as to whether Willemse’s outstanding talent and subsequent ability to play in so many positions, might prevent him from going to the next level.
Much of the debate has focused on whether his talents are best utilised at flyhalf or fullback, where he has been deployed for the majority of his career.
There has also been the interesting suggestion that he could be better suited at 12, much like Steyn, where his upper body strength, fast feet and ball skills would make him a threat to any defence.
This was given some credence when he was deployed off the bench at inside centre against Georgia and enjoyed an outstanding cameo.
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) July 5, 2021
Regardless, the Bok coaching staff made their short-term intentions about Willemse’s future clear when they selected him in Steyn’s role on the bench in the first two Tests against the British & Irish Lions.
It was a massive show of confidence in the 23-year-old, especially as he was picked as the main backline position in a six-two split in the second Test match of the series.
The coaching staff have also clearly changed Willemse’s thinking around this issue and have got him to embrace his new role.
“The coaches have been clear with the plans for me now that I’m covering 10, 12 and 15,” he said. “Playing 12 is not all that different to 10. It’s about being in the frontline and chasing kicks, but I have played Currie Cup and club rugby at 12, so it hasn’t been too much of a change … I feel fortunate to be able to fulfil different roles and I’m really enjoying it.”
It may just be that the thing thought to kill most young careers, is what gets Willemse to his ultimate potential as a player.
Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix