Bok omission could inspire a Willemse growth spurt

rugby22 August 2019 06:49| © Cycle Lab
By:JJ Harmse
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Damian Willemse © Getty Images

According to Western Province coach John Dobson, Damian Willemse is still playing for a place in the Springbok squad for the World Cup, but if he doesn’t make the group there is a silver lining for the talented former South African Schools flyhalf.

According to Dobson, if Willemse doesn’t get into the national group that heads to Japan in a couple of weeks, he’ll be heading to English club Saracens. But before that news elicits panic, let it be pointed out that we’re talking a very short-term loan deal, one that will see Willemse returning to Cape Town in time for the 2020 Super Rugby pre-season.

“If he doesn’t go to the World Cup, Damian could have an opportunity to go to Saracens on a short-term loan, and if that does come about it’ll be a good thing for him as he can learn a lot through a short stint in the UK,” said Dobson.

“Saracens as you know have a very good kicking game. If he goes there he’ll learn a lot about the game management that is expected of a flyhalf and he’ll come back better equipped to do well for us in Super Rugby.”

Willemse has been out for a couple of months with the knee injury that he picked up playing a Super Rugby match against the Lions in Johannesburg at the beginning of June so he hasn’t been over-played this year and with the off-season longer than usual this year, a stint at Saracens makes sense.

“Our WP captain Chris van Zyl played for Saracens last year and enjoyed it and learnt a lot from the experience and then was back to take part in our pre-season,” said Dobson.

Right now though Willemse is not thinking about Saracens, or even directly about Springbok selection. His focus is on performing for WP in their crunch final Currie Cup league match of the season against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

“Damian is a special kid off the field as well as on it and is a deep thinker on the game so I don’t think he’s going to be too badly knocked if he isn’t in the World Cup squad, but he does want to make a point to the national selectors. In his mind he is still playing for a chance to be in the World Cup squad.”

Playing for and training with Saracens while the World Cup is on could have another positive spin-off in the event that there is an injury in the Bok squad and Willemse is called to Japan as a replacement. One of the potential difficulties when it comes to injuries sustained at this World Cup is that the Currie Cup will be over two weeks before the World Cup even starts, meaning that if there is an injury in mid-tournament and a South African based player is called to Japan, he wouldn’t have played for more than a month.

While obviously every player wants to be at the World Cup, and being there would be a good experience for Willemse, he stands to get more game time if he goes to Saracens and possibly more personalised attention too.

Dobson has repeatedly made it clear in the past few weeks that he sees Willemse’s future as being at flyhalf, with the youngster having played most of his rugby this year at fullback at the request of Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, who was looking for a back-up player who could play both flyhalf/fullback. That hole looks to have subsequently been filled by veteran Frans Steyn, who has done well as a replacement centre but can also wear the No 10 or 15 if called upon.

Dobson’s commitment to play Willemse at flyhalf should be welcomed by both fans of WP/Stormers and the national team, as that is where the gap is at both levels. SP Marais is heading to Japan at the end of the domestic season but Dillyn Leyds looks set to stay in the Cape and is a more than capable fullback, and there are also some promising fullbacks coming through on the provincial circuit, such as the Lions’ Tyrone Green and of course the Bulls' Warrick Gelant, if he says fit, looks a likely long term replacement for Willie le Roux.

But the flyhalf stocks aren’t exactly overflowing. Handre Pollard must be close to the best flyhalf in the world at the moment and Elton Jantjies is an experienced international pivot, but beneath that there’s a gap. Curwin Bosch’s switch back to flyhalf earlier this year was one step towards filling that gap, and now Willemse’s return to flyhalf will add even more depth and a possible succession line to Pollard.

Like Bosch, Willemse has been playing first class rugby for long enough now for it to be forgotten that he has only just recently reached the age where his parents have given him the key to the front door. It was as recently as 2016 that he was lighting up the Craven Week at Kearsney College. He is of course far more physical than Bosch, who was the star of the previous Craven Week played in Stellenbosch, and arguably has more to his allround game than Bosch has, but both of them are precociously talented and have plenty of time to develop. Willemse’s development could be accelerated by a short stint overseas.

“Damian showed us last week when he came on against Griquas what a good attacking flyhalf he is and we are expecting a lot from him against the Cheetahs. He’s really motivated to do well for us and hopefully push our season out by another few weeks, but if he is not in the World Cup squad when it is announced on Monday he will then give some thought to Saracens.”

The cash-strapped WP union appear quite eager to enter into loan agreements with overseas clubs. Tighthead prop Carlu Sadie is understood to have already left Cape Town to take up a short term loan deal in France.