Damian Willemse is worth every cent of investment – and more. His value has been made possible because of the vision of DHL Stormers coach John Dobson, who refused to ever lose faith in Willemse and always referred to him as the player equivalent of a bar of gold, writes Mark Keohane.
A year ago there was a newspaper report of what Willemse was being paid. I felt it was an inflated value for a player whose schoolboy potential wasn’t being maximised. I wrote as much.
Dobbo countered this view and refused to give an inch on the value of the player.
If his budget allowed for more, back then, he’d have invested it in ensuring Willemse plays the best part of his career in Cape Town in the colours of the Stormers.
Dobbo told me that it was his responsibility as a coach to develop a style of rugby that complements every skill set of Willemse’s, to surround him with the type of player who also does so.
Dobbo’s contention was that Willemse was gold to the region because he was made from this region, loved this region and that the Stormers and Western Province rugby were in his DNA.
If the Stormers were to fulfil their ambition of being the strongest rugby club int he world in the next three to five years, then Damian Willemse had to be at the forefront of this charge.
On Friday, the last day of September, Willemse signed with the Stormers for five years.
It is an incredible coup for the Stormers but it is such a celebration for both player and coach.
A player of Willemse’s kind can be a victim of his own versatility, and playing for the Stormers at the beginning of 2021 it was starting to look as if that was the case. He did not own the number 10 jersey, nor did he convince at fullback. I felt a player reminiscent of a young Frans Steyn was fading into a system that he could not control and that equally did not support him.
Dobbo was adamant that in the right system, Willemse would thrive. For both the Springboks and the Stormers that has finally happened, and heading into the end of the year he has proven one of the most valuable players in both teams, be it at 10,12 or 15.
Where Willemse had begun to look lost between three positions, he has started to offer a unique impact in each. In the Springboks series win against Wales Willemse was arguably the player of the tournament, starting at fullback. On the number of occasions he was called on at inside centre, he saw success at the gainline and showed great aggression on defence. Finally, in a pivotal second Test against Australia – after the Boks lost their first – he guided South Africa to victory from flyhalf, winning Man of The Match in a game where the Boks played some of their best rugby of the year. Earlier in the year, I named him as my Stormers player of the season in the Vodacom Rugby Championship, and he has made a strong case for the Springboks so far too.
Dobbo got it so right in backing him and building a structure that suits his talents, playing him primarily off a very dynamic Manie Libbok, with the comfort that he can also cover fullback and flyhalf. Willemse at inside centre is close enough to the game to constantly have an impact, without the pressure of being first receiver. The result has been an easing of that pressure, and when he now does play flyhalf it is with a calmness that was lacking before, but an X- factor that not many number 10s possess.
Willemse played through a bad injury to help his side through the knockout stages and then Vodacom URC final win against the Bulls.
Fit and inspired off the back of a breakthrough season for the Boks, he will be the key to unlocking the Stormers short and long term vision within Dobbo’s system.