Willemse: Stormers can do it pretty and ugly

It will be interesting to see whether Damian Willemse, seen here in action against La Rochelle in December, will be utilised at centre or fullback for the Stormers this weekend. Picture: BackpagePix

It will be interesting to see whether Damian Willemse, seen here in action against La Rochelle in December, will be utilised at centre or fullback for the Stormers this weekend. Picture: BackpagePix

Published Apr 3, 2024


While last week’s battling win over Ulster may be viewed in a negative light, Damian Willemse believes that it showcased the Stormers’ ability to adapt to different tactics to clinch victory.

The last two Stormers performances couldn’t have been more different in style, with a free-flowing seven-try 43-21 win over Edinburgh followed by an arm wrestle as they edged Ulster 13-7 last weekend.

Now they are getting ready for the champions of Europe, La Rochelle, in Saturday’s Champions Cup round of 16 clash at Cape Town Stadium (4pm kick-off), and potentially having to marry those approaches in order to take down the French giants.

Stormers coach John Dobson felt that his team had become too loose against Ulster and wasted a few try-scoring opportunities, but that they had been forced to make tackle after tackle in the first half.

Against Edinburgh, the Cape side showed the necessary patience on attack to grab a bonus-point triumph by dotting down seven times, and they will hope to achieve the same rhythm and tempo with ball in hand this weekend.

But La Rochelle didn’t win the Champions Cup over the last two seasons for nothing.

They have a seriously loaded team coached by former Ireland flyhalf Ronan O’Gara and headlined by Wallaby powerhouse Will Skelton, French stars Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Jonathan Danty, as well as Springboks Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule.

The Stormers have their own big names too, though, in the shape of Willemse, Manie Libbok, Evan Roos, Hacjivah Dayimani and Frans Malherbe – with Deon Fourie currently injured, although it is unclear if the latter will be fit to play on Saturday.

“The Edinburgh game, it did get a bit more loose and we got the opportunity to express ourselves and kind of just flow into our natural state, and the things that we are good at,” utility back Willemse said yesterday.

“That’s not to say we are not good at playing a tight game, but half the (Ulster) game, they had all the possession and territory, and put us under a lot of pressure in our half.

“But we managed to absorb that pressure and come up with solutions. It was two contrasting games, so if you look at both weekends, we are very much happy to play both games (styles).

“We have to look at what the game is giving us and how the opposition are playing. That was the game last week – we were under the pump and didn’t have a lot of possession of the ball.

“Territory-wise, we were forced back into our own half, and we were forced to defend. We did absolutely well – our discipline was really good: we were down to five penalties, which is great and a real positive for us to look at.”

The Stormers have shown their championship pedigree in the United Rugby Championship, reaching the final two years in a row and winning the first one.

They got stopped in their tracks in the Champions Cup quarter-finals by Exeter in England last season, and want to go even further this time around.

Willemse, a double World Cup winner with the Springboks at the age of just 25, also has the Currie Cup and URC titles on his CV, so a Champions Cup crown would complete a superb set of trophies.

It will also be interesting to see where he is utilised this weekend, having been playing mainly at inside centre for the Stormers and fullback for the Boks.

“As a group, it (the title) is something that we are working and building towards,” Willemse said.

“It’s going to be a hectic clash, and we don’t want to look too far ahead to winning the competition. It is obviously a goal of ours, but we are controlling every moment that we can and working hard on our game ...

“When we played them in December (a 21-20 Stormers win in Cape Town), it was a totally different team. We just came back from the World Cup and their players too, so it was a totally different dimension.

“We know they are going to bring their challenge, but we are not going to just sit back and wait for them – we are going to take the challenge to them, too.”