Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus tellingly said this week regarding Damian Willemse: "I can understand why the hype is there."
There are still doubts – at the age of 28 – on whether Elton Jantjies can perform consistently at Test level, seemingly struggling to cope with the pressure and high expectations. "Whatever his hiccups are at that final hurdle, we must help him with it and sort it out," Erasmus said last week.
"I have no doubt about his talent and we must find a way for him to perform right through to the highest level and that's our job as coaches to help him do that."
On the other hand Willemse, at the age of 20, is believed to have the big-match temperament and physicality that Jantjies lacks at Test level. The Lions flyhalf has generally proven to be a stalwart at Super Rugby level, but disappointed in the Super Rugby final and his last contribution in Bok colours at a wet Newlands was not one to make a highlights package.
Willemse will make history if he comes off the bench against Argentina in Durban in the Boks’ first Rugby Championship encounter: becoming the first black player from Paul Roos Gymnasium to play a Test for South Africa and the prestigious school’s 53rd Bok. While Willemse has made his mark at flyhalf for the Stormers, he is expected to get a run at fullback on Saturday.
It is commendable that Erasmus hasn’t discarded Jantjies as yet, but it would be more sensible to hone the younger Willemse’s considerable talents. Willemse can not only be a back-up for Willie le Roux at No 15 but is also a worthy No 2 at flyhalf to Handre Pollard. What helps is that Willemse has the speed and bulk to impose himself physically, where Jantjies falls short.
Damian Willemse (in front, white shirt) will become @PaulRoos_Gym’s first coloured old boy to be capped for the @Springboks on Saturday. He wil be the school’s 53rd Bok and was part of a group of kids Caroline Rupert & Winston Baard helped to attend the school. @Sport24news pic.twitter.com/Q4xVGnuX2s
"I think he’s one of those younger guys who physically can stand up. You don’t doubt his physicality if you compare him with other guys his age," Erasmus said at a press conference in Umhlanga this week. "We know how he can tackle, he’s got a great step and a good boot.
"The challenge will be pressure and expectation, but if he gets through that he is a talent and maybe he can do it for us at the World Cup as a utility player.”
While Willemse might still be an unknown factor at Test level, Erasmus is also uncertain what to expect from the Pumas, who have replaced Daniel Hourcade with Mario Ledesma as their coach.
“The change of coach has made us unsure of what we will get from the Pumas,” Erasmus told SuperSport.co.za. “We suspect that they will play with the Jaguares style as there isn’t much you can change in the space of three weeks.
“But the Jaguares boasted the third most running metres in Super Rugby and we’d be surprised if they ran it as much now. In the Championship they will probably kick a lot more. There will be more of a tactical kicking element to their game.”
One thing the Boks will not be in the dark about is that the Pumas will pose a highly physical challenge. It’s here where Willemse is expected to show he can mix it with the best and the toughest at Test level.
VIDEO: Bok captain Siya Kolisi on why Damian Willemse is ready for the step up to Test rugby. pic.twitter.com/JyGfDRdYyC