CAPE TOWN – Western Province coach John Dobson says it would have been a risk starting Damian Willemse at flyhalf for their Currie Cup final against the Sharks at Newlands tomorrow (kick-off 4 pm).
In their semi-final struggle against the Blue Bulls at home last week, Willemse played at 10 and didn’t enjoy much scope against the Bulls’ rush defence, while Stander played off the bench, which saw Willemse switching to inside centre in the second half.
Willemse hasn’t started at 12 since the Junior Boks’ World Rugby Under-20 Championship campaign last year, and despite that, Dobson believes the selection is a safer option for a number of reasons.
“I don’t see it as a risk. I think it would have been more of a risk had we carried on like we were,” Dobson said during yesterday’s team announcement. “I think, certainly short-term, it’s been made clear to Damian that his international future is at fullback.”
“Last week he took the ball at full speed and we struggled to get outside their rush. And it’s a lot to ask a guy to boss the thing with a new scrumhalf he’s never played with, that’s a big ask. There’s less stress with regards to decision-making (at 12). He can go flat out from that position.”
“The team feel safe with Josh at 10. What we didn’t do last week is we didn’t get the ball out the back with the rush, Damian and all our centres were taking it straight to the line. The only ball we got out the back was the one that led to SP’s try, and ironically Damian was the guy who made the pass to Leyds in what was traditionally the 12 role.”
While Dobson’s pick is a horses for courses one and a virtually a once-off situation, it also needs to be asked what impact yet another switch in a high-pressure match will have on Willemse’s development.
While he was the Stormers’ starting flyhalf for the most part of their Super Rugby campaign, he missed out on the No 10 berth in last year’s Currie Cup final in Durban as well with Robert du Preez starting, while Springbok boss Rassie Erasmus has made his plans for the 20-year-old clear - at fullback.
Stander, on the other hand, has done well for Province throughout the Currie Cup season in Willemse international absence, and Dobson is confident that he will be able to pass the linespeed-test, should the Sharks use the tactic this weekend.
“I think Josh is quite good at getting the ball behind if they do come with rush defence,” Dobson further explained. “Defensively Damian is very strong and very good and very aggressive. And the way he defended at 12 in the last part of that game (against the Blue Bulls) was very good.”
“Josh has been really good (at 10) this season and we just feel that having Damian at 12 will give us another kicking option.”
“People see Damian as a running flyhalf because he can step. But he actually has a bigger boot than Josh in terms of distance. It also helps us in making sure that we’re not playing in the wrong territory.”
The Western Province team is:
15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian Willemse, 11 SP Marais, 10 Josh Stander, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Ernst van Rhyn, 6 Kobus van Dyk, 5 JD Schickerling, 4 Chris van Zyl (captain), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ali Vermaak.
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Michael Kumbirai, 19 Salmaan Moerat, 20 Jaco Coetzee, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Dan Kriel, 23 JJ Engelbrecht.