Damian Willemse’s cameo appearances as a super-sub will be decisive in a Springboks series win against the British & Irish Lions, with the Springbok coaching staff backing him unconditionally in the role of 12, 10 and 15 cover, writes Oliver Keohane.
Willemse, for now, has leapfrogged veteran Frans Steyn, who was expected to play that role, as he did at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Willemse’s career has been characterised more by consternation around his best position than consistency in his performances. Between 2015 and 2016 he was the best schoolboy flyhalf in South Africa, and arguably remains the best flyhalf South Africa has seen at that level since Handre Pollard.
The professional arena proved to be a different domain though, and Willemse has equally shone and struggled bouncing between flyhalf and fullback at the Stormers for the last few years, and remained on the fringe internationally.
A case has often been made for Willemse to be backed unconditionally in one position and allowed to grow into his role, and it appears that 2021 will be the year for that, yet not in the guise we the public and he the player may have expected.
The famed South African ‘Bomb Squad’ cannot function without it’s bombs, and the absence of RG Snyman and (until now) unavailability of Lood De Jager, has meant that the 6-2 bench split that proved so successful during the Springboks World Cup-winning campaign, has been substituted for a 5-3 bench that demands backline cover equally capable of having a game-changing effect.
Willemse is a game changer, but it seems that he will be expected to facilitate this change not from flyhalf or fullback, but from inside centre. In the Springboks first test this year against Georgia, Willemse came on at 12 to replace (Frans) Steyn, and looked comfortable. He featured in a similar role for SA A against the British & Irish Lions and the Bulls.
Willemse’s natural footballing skill and athleticism allow him to play at flyhalf, fullback and inside centre, and his utility need not be his downfall as has been the case with players of similar ilk in the past. Willemse may well find that his best position, especially as he matures in a Springbok and Stormers jersey, is at inside centre, but his value will remain in his capability to cover half the backline.
Willemse is over six foot tall, and nearly 95kg, and while his sidestep and speed had always caught the eye, his physical presence is an underrated asset in his arsenal and one that allows him to play in the centres.
In the current Springbok climate, Willemse is not yet good enough to demand a role as the starting flyhalf, fullback or inside centre. But there is nobody better to do what the Springbok coaches need from a backline player on the bench. It’s evident in his inclusion in every match day 23 so far this year, that the international coaches back him to be that super-sub, and it’s promising for Willemse’s game that he is finally being backed in one role, if not one position.
But in a modern-day game, the bench is not so much a set of replacements as they are specific roles themselves, and more and more the super-sub has become as important as the player who starts the match. Look no further than Beauden Barrett, and look no further than the security that Francois Steyn offered the Springbok team in 2019.
Willemse has an opportunity to shine in every British & Irish Lions match, and he has a chance to settle himself as the natural successor to Frans Steyn, in the same series that the latter was so influential in 12 years ago.
Damian Willemse can and should become an indispensable member of any Springbok 23 moving forward, and with his role clearly outlined for the first time, by Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus, he must shine in the three Tests series.
Watch: Willemse’s X-Factor on display
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