The 20-year-old has been a superstar since his school days in the Cape winelands, whether he’s worn the No 10 on his back or run out at fullback.
Provincially, for the Stormers, he’s been picked more often at flyhalf, but when he made his Springbok debut last year coach Rassie Erasmus said his future lay at fullback for the national team.
The good news is Willemse is comfortable in both positions, even though he admits he prefers No10. He, however, feels fullback offers him more space and time to influence rugby matches. A tough decision then, by all accounts, but one he feels he has to make in the coming year.
“The plan going forward is for me to play fullback,” said the Stormers man this last week, just two weeks out from the start of the 2019 Super Rugby competition.
“I’m not too phased where I play, I want to be available where I’m needed, but I also have to start thinking about making a decision of where I want to play; of what is best for me.
“Right now I’m a 10; it’s my preferred position. But playing at fullback allows me to express myself more, to run with the ball in space.
“At 10 there’s a little more pressure, because of the responsibility of having to manage the game, of having to steer the team in the right direction. I know I’m going to have to make a call at some stage this year, but it’s not an easy decision to make.”
For now the young Stormers man, who featured mainly off the bench and at fullback for the Boks in the latter stages of last season, is focused only on what his Super Rugby franchise require of him.
“I’ve had a chat to the coach (Robbie Fleck) and we’ve decided we’ll take it one game at a time this season, depending on the needs of the team. I’ll play at 10 and 15 ... the good thing is we’ve got quality depth at the Stormers. There’s Jean-Luc du Plessis, Dillyn Leyds can play 10 and 15, SP Marais is there, Josh Stander is a quality player, so there are options for the team.
“Right now I’m not worried about where I play, but the time will come to make that call.”
Bok boss Erasmus may encourage Willemse to hold off on making any decisions until after the World Cup though because having a player of Willemse’s class and skill in the squad and who can play at 10, flyhalf and possibly even centre at his disposal may ensure the Stormers man a spot in the 31-man Japan-bound squad.
And going to the World Cup will be on Willemse’s “to-do” list this year but he’ll only tick that box if he’s able to perform at a high, consistent level throughout the Super Rugby campaign.
“Everything for me is about giving my best for the Stormers this year. I want to continue to learn and grow and I know how important it is to perform at a consistently high standard. That’s what separates one from the other players.
“It’s the same with the team in general this year. We’ve got all the coaches and the players to go far in this competition, but we have to perform consistently well. One of the key aspects for us is doing better away from home, something we haven’t managed to do at all well in recent times.”
Indeed, the Stormers have struggled on the road; they did not win an away game in eight outings last season, and Willemse said that if his team were to have a successful year they’d have to pick up wins on the road.
“We have to win away from our home ground. If we get that right and stay consistent week after week then the confidence will grow and it will help us go further in the competition.
“We’re one of the best counter-attacking sides in Super Rugby, we create a lot of chances, but too often in the recent past we haven’t finished off properly; our execution has let us down. Maybe we must learn to be more patient, and also the players need to take ownership, and make the tough calls during games. They must start backing themselves; that’s the only difference between us and the New Zealand sides; we must use initiative, use our skills, show some X-factor.”
The under-performing Stormers have a big year ahead of them, but so does young Willemse, as an individual and as a team man. He’ll play off the bench tomorrow when the Stormers take on the Bulls in the second of the two games in the pre-season Superhero Sunday double-header at the Cape Town Stadium. Kick off is 4pm in their game.@jacq_west