JOHANNESBURG - One of the most exciting players to make his mark in South African rugby in recent years has been Damian Willemse - a flyhalf.
He played in the No 10 jersey while at school at Paul Roos Gymnasium, he played in the No 10 jersey for the SA Schools team for two years, in 2015 and 2016, he played for the SA Under-20 team at the Junior World Cup in the No 10 jersey and he’s played in the same position for the Stormers.
So, why would anyone want to make him put on a No 15 jersey for the Springboks? I was surprised to hear national coach Rassie Erasmus talk about Willemse last week as a potential Test fullback... and that easing him into Test rugby at fullback, and from off the bench, might be easier on him, with less pressure.
That might be, and many reasons have been provided why such a move would be best for the player, but the alternative view is that a player who has played flyhalf all his life knows the demands that go with the No 10 shirt. Surely Willemse has shown over the last few years that he is good enough to be picked at No 10 for the Boks, or play off the bench in that position... or he wouldn’t have been picked for his school team, SA Schools, SA U20s and the Boks.
Erasmus has said he doesn’t doubt the 20-year-old’s ability, but that playing at No 15 might help him in understanding how to manipulate the opposition. He added the pressure at No 15, at Willemse’s age, would be less to deal with than at flyhalf. That might be, but surely when you’ve got a talent as promising as Willemse, you want to get him in at No 10 as quickly as possible, to let him grow into the role, feel the pressure at flyhalf and learn.
It’s interesting that Willemse might make his initial strides in Test rugby at fullback, and from off the bench, while four years ago when another 20-year-old was the talk of the town, Handre Pollard, he was picked straight out of the U20 team to debut for the Boks at flyhalf. Like Pollard, Willemse has also been talked about as a “gifted” player, a man with X-factor, who has attacking flair, can distribute well and is physically imposing. He’s also a pretty decent goal-kicker.
The Springboks have arrived in Durban and ready for a great week of preparations for our first #CastleLager Rugby Championship match against @unionargentina on Saturday. #LoveRugby pic.twitter.com/k3HSIxq0yI
I kind of understand the thinking behind using Willemse at fullback, and from off the bench, but with his skills and abilities he’s surely going to benefit more playing No 10 and even 12 more regularly than at 15. It was good to hear Erasmus also suggest he sees the 20-year-old as a guy who can cover No 10, 12 and 15. Let’s just hope he doesn’t become the perennial bench sitter for that very reason - that he covers just about every position in the backline and becomes a Jack of all trades and master of none.
Pollard has been generally good, without being excellent, for the Boks in his 29 Tests, while current second choice, Elton Jantjies, has been only inconsistent in his 26 Tests, so what’s there to lose in trying Willemse - a young, confident, and extremely gifted player - in the No 10 jersey?