Why Willemse is a big loss to both Stormers and Boks

rugby22 May 2024 08:58
By:Gavin Rich
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Willie le Roux © Gallo Images

Willie le Roux can play fullback for the Springboks and Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu’s return to fitness is timely for the DHL Stormers but Damian Willemse’s injury is nonetheless badly timed for both of the coaches that he plays for.

It has been reported that Willemse suffered a finger ligament injury in the Stormers’ Vodacom United Rugby Championship clash with Connacht in Galway at the weekend that will require surgery. The expected period of his absence from the game will be four months, which will rule him out of the rest of the Stormers’ URC season, which is heading now to the crucial knock-out stage, and also the big two test series between the Boks and Ireland.

Willemse’s absence might have a small silver lining for the Stormers in the sense that Feinberg-Mngomezulu could do with an extended run in the starting team and with Willemse out of the picture he becomes an option in the midfield. Of course, coach John Dobson could play Wandisile Simelane at outside centre and play stalwart Dan du Plessis in his preferred position, but Feinberg-Mngomezulu, although primarily seeing himself as a flyhalf, has played most of his games for the Stormers in the No 12 jersey.


It would be a good opportunity for the precociously talented 22-year-old to grow if he got an extended run into the knock-out phases of the URC. He made his debut at that level in a quarterfinal two years ago where he was required to play outside centre, a position he had not played before, for much of the match after an injury early in the game, and showed good temperament.

However, as a World Cup winner, it would be Willemse’s experience of big playoff games that would be considered almost as valuable to the Stormers as his undeniable talent and utility value. Losing him is a big blow to the Stormers’ chances of progressing beyond what will now certainly be an away quarterfinal on the weekend of 7/8 June.

There is an outside chance Willemse’s injury could present an opportunity for Feinberg-Mngomezulu at Bok level too. Where national coach Rassie Erasmus will be feeling he has lost something with the injury to 26-year-old Willemse is the backline player with utility value that is required in order for the Boks to go into major games with their famous six/two Bomb Squad bench split between forwards and backs.

But with the Ireland series considered a must win due to the poor recent SA record against that nation, a team the Boks haven’t beaten since 2016, it would require a big leap of faith on Erasmus’ part to back a player so young and inexperienced. Feinberg-Mngomezulu, like Willemse, can play flyhalf, centre and fullback.

While Le Roux can easily slot into the No 15 jersey that Willemse wore in the key games at the World Cup in France last September and October, the role veteran Frans Steyn pioneered in the previous World Cup in Japan in 2019 is less easy to reprise.


Willemse’s injury is the latest in a mounting list of injury concerns ahead of the Ireland series, which kicks off with the first test at Loftus on 6 July before the series is concluded in Durban a week later.

Two of the players used at hooker in the last World Cup, Malcolm Marx and Deon Fourie, are both injured, as is looseforward dynamo Kwagga Smith. Injury has prevented scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse from playing for the Sharks over the past few weeks and Lukhanyo Am is out for an unspecified period with shoulder and rib injuries.

Steven Kitshoff had to return home from his stint with Ulster early and will also not be fronting Ireland in this series, while other World Cup winners such as Eben Etzebeth and Vincent Koch, although they will be playing Friday’s Challenge Cup final for the Sharks, have struggled with niggling injuries recently.

Add to that the fact that the Japanese players will always need some time to get reaccustomed to the physicality required for the highest level of international rugby and it becomes apparent why the extra test match against Wales to be played a week before the Ireland series kicks off is considered so necessary.