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Opinion

The curious case of Damian Willemse

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6th October, 2020
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The F Scott Fitzgerald book The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the story of a man who is born old, spends his years getting younger over time, and eventually dies as an infant.

In some ways this could reflect the career of Damian Willemse. He was birthed onto the international stage with the expectation that from the word go he is an old head, and he has all the experience, skills and temperament to be a success. Willemse is being groomed as the next Springboks number ten. How will he progress over time?

I watched the Springboks’ green verus gold match on the weekend and Willemse started as the gold team’s ten. If I was kind, I’d say he’s a young player still learning his trade, that hadn’t played in a while, and was behind a retreating pack. If I was brutally honest, I’d say he had a stinker.

He never really got going. He didn’t really get his team going. He slotted one conversion from four, with the three he missed not necessarily being classified as hard. He missed kicks to touch, knocked on the ball, picked up a yellow card, and eventually left the pitch early in the second half with a head wound and blood on his shirt. Yep, it was a tough run out for the youngster.

I’m sure there’s some people in South Africa that know a lot more about rugby union and Willemse’s game than I do, and they’re persisting with playing him at ten. Good on them for making a decision and sticking to it. I’m just concerned it’s not the right one and it could jeopardise his career.

Willemse is a curious player.

Damian Willemse

(Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

He has some eye-catching attributes: he’s a natural athlete. He is a quick, powerful runner and has a lethal step. Not many people leave Ryan Crotty flat footed. He can kick a ball, is not shy of contact, and tackles hard. He has individual moments of brilliance that can take your breath away.

My concern is that to play ten well, there are some skills that you either have or you don’t: a natural reading of the game and awareness of space. There is that ability to create time for yourself and others. All the good tens seem to have time on the ball.

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I’ve watched Willemse since he was playing for South Africa’s under-20s. He was impressive back then, but most of what he did was from running with the ball in all the space that was given to him in that level of rugby.

Since he’s been playing for Western Province, the Stormers and the Boks, he always looks rushed, lacks awareness, and he never seems to be able to bring others into the game.

Perhaps the coaches aren’t concerned with this. Handre Pollard isn’t the South African Dan Carter and he won us a World Cup. And if we have someone like Willie le Roux on the field creating opportunities in broken play, all we need is someone solid at ten who can play within our structures. We tend to go off nine a fair bit too.

But if he is going to play ten, he needs to be able to direct play and bring others into the game. Le Roux is 31 and won’t be around forever, and I haven’t seen another player with his skill set who could fill the void. So the Boks’ nine and ten are going to have to bring a lot more direction and creativity to our play in the future. Someone also needs to kick the conversions.

There are probably other players better equipped to play ten for the Boks. Pollard is 26 and has that position tied down for the foreseeable future. Elton Jantjies is an experienced back-up. Kade Wolhuter is one to keep an eye on.

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Damian Willemse is a curious case for the Boks. There’s a weight of expectation that he’s the answer at ten but I’m not sure he has the skill set to be a success in that position. He’s simply too good to leave out though. It might be better for him to settle into another position that allows him to showcase his skills instead of highlighting his limitations.

Would he be better suited to 15? He’d be lethal coming into the line during broken play, he offers a solid boot, and he would be a reliable last line of defence. Could he play 12? I like this idea. It leaves room for Warrick Gelant and Aphelele Fassi at 15, but I’m not sure he fits the favoured mould of a Boks 12.

Either way it’s something that needs addressing, otherwise the international career of a promising player would be like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: born old with expectation that he already has it all, the next few years spent in the wrong position, only for it to fade and die out in its infancy.

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