CAPE TOWN – Should Damian Willemse be playing for the Junior Boks instead of the Springboks?
The 20-year-old flyhalf was the big - and expected - omission from Stormers coach Robbie Fleck’s 25-man Super Rugby squad for the match against the Sunwolves in Hong Kong on Saturday. He will join the Junior Boks for the World Rugby Under-20 Championships in the south of France, which kicks off on May 30.
Willemse was also a part of Chean Roux’s team for the international tournament last year, while he has been the Stormers’ starting No 10 this season. And it’s a job he’s done well.
So, shouldn’t some kind of involvement with the Springboks be the next step?
Western Province Rugby has made no secret of their plans for Willemse (you know, all the “future of the union” references). When SA Director of Rugby and Bok coach Rassie Erasmus arrived at the Cape Town International Airport a couple of weeks ago, he also mentioned the hot-stepping pivot when he went through the list of players who have impressed him this year as he prepares for the international season.
Wales will be challenge No 1 on June 2 in Washington DC, before the much-anticipated three-Test series against Eddie Jones’ England kicks off the following week in Johannesburg.
“Damian Willemse has been excellent, but somewhere he has to go through that pressure phase - that’s going to happen somewhere. You know how form goes, he struggled a bit two weeks ago (against the Bulls),” Erasmus said of Willemse.
That “pressure phase” surely is needed, and does it get any more high-pressured than international rugby?
I’m not saying that he should be thrown into the starting line-up or even make the bench throughout the June series, but getting him involved in the Springbok environment, and getting him exposed to the little things surely would have helped? And so would a minute or two here and there, whether that is against Wales or in one of the Tests against England.
Besides, it is indeed true that Willemse is perhaps yet to experience real pressure, so there is still some kind of jury out on how he’d go in a heavy-pressure international situation.
But, as a 19-year-old, fresh-out-of-school prodigy last year, he already showed his class and his talent in one of the toughest rugby competitions in the world..
We all know about his ability to keep opposition defences guessing. We all know how dedicated he is on defence. We know his goal-kicking has continued to improve over the weeks (it was near flawless in the first half of the competition). And we know the kind of X-factor he possesses and the upward curve of his tactical kicking.
We’ve seen his passing game and his ability to make split-second decisions. But his worth can also be seen in his work rate, in how he puts in a kick, chases it down and performs hit after hit on the defenders who manage to get their hands on the ball. In how he gets involved everywhere in the game. In how he always seems eager to put in the work.
And seeing him have to play for the Junior Boks for a second year kind of seems like linear progression, if any progress at all.
Yeah, he still has a lot to learn. His game management can be sharpened, and that will come with time.
But someone like him, someone who’s clearly an international player in the making should be developed properly.
And I see no reason why that development couldn’t have started in June.