The significance of Francois Steyn starting at number 12 while Damian Willemse wears 15 against Argentina on Saturday, should be lost on none. It may be the last time the two start in the same team together, and it is representative of a wonderful handing over of the Springbok baton, writes Oliver Keohane.
Steyn and Willemse are bound by two achievements that not many boast; a shared World Cup win and a shared British & Irish Lions series win. Willemse, now 23 years old, experienced his World Cup win in 2019 and series win in 2021 in a very different context to Steyn, who at 32 (during the World Cup) and 34 (during the Lions series) reached the heights of Springbok rugby for the second time in his career. Steyn had already won a World Cup at 20 years old in 2007, and a British & Irish Lions series at 22, in 2009.
The similarities between a young Francois Steyn and Damian Willemse are frightening, from an age-relative-achievements perspective and from a positional point of view. The difference between 2009 and 2021 though, is that while there was no veteran ushering in the era of Francois Steyn, Damian Willemse will only be the better for receiving the baton from Steyn in what will be his final Springbok season, and potentially a defining one for Willemse.
Frans Steyn started his career as a fullback, debuted for the Springboks on the wing, and won the World Cup in 2007 at number 12, replacing an injured Jean De Villiers at the beginning of the tournament. He was equally comfortable when asked to play flyhalf.
Willemse, mercurial as a schoolboy flyhalf, had been seen more as a fullback in professional rugby, before Springbok management began using him at inside centre in 2o21 and cut out a role for him as the designated utility back over the Lions series.
For Jacques Nienaber to entrust Damian Willemse on the bench in every Lions Test, ahead of Francois Steyn, speaks volumes of the regard for Willemse’s talents within the Springbok management and the plan that they have for his future. Where Steyn’s versatility gave the Springboks comfort from the bench for the 2019 World Cup winning campaign, allowing them to play their famed 6-2 split, Willemse has evidently been tasked with the same role moving forward.
There is such a strong culture that exists within this current Springbok side, with every player in the squad committed to their role, be it starting, coming off the bench, or emulating the opposition at training. Where most of South Africa thought that Francois Steyn’s role would remain that of versatile veteran in his final season, it seems he may instead play a nurturing role to Damian Willemse, who has grown in stature over the last few months.
The Springboks were always going to have to reshuffle for this first Test against Argentina, and it is because of this that we see Steyn and Willemse starting in the same backline. There is something so great about Willemse starting in the position that Steyn began his career in, and Steyn starting in the position that the Springbok management seem to see Willemse’s future in.
Frans Steyn was an enigma of Springbok rugby, and until Willemse there has never again been a player in South Africa (besides perhaps Johan Goosen), who has shared his same qualities. It has been a blessing for South African rugby that Frans Steyn has hung around long enough to see in a player who can carry the responsibility within the Springboks squad that he did for many years.
Where Steyn’s versatility may have been a frustration to him early on his career, when rugby was still very much focused on the starting 15 players, Willemse’s utility is his Springbok key in what is now a 23-man game.
There is a clear plan for Damian Willemse to succeed as a Springbok, and it is so significant that Francois Steyn is his final season is a part of that succession plan. Enjoy Saturday as it may be the last time these two players feature in different positions, in the same starting team. It marks a special day in Springbok rugby, as a changing of the guard.