Injury, Steyn spell worrying World Cup news for Willemse

Damian Willemse (Gallo)
Damian Willemse (Gallo)

Cape Town - As the 2019 Rugby World Cup draws closer, the Springbok squad for Japan looks to be picking itself in many ways. 

That is largely down to the fact that, over the last two weekends, there have been some hugely impressive individual performances from players who have put their hands up.

The likes of Herschel Jantjies, S'bu Nkosi, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Warrick Gelant and Kwagga Smith have all put in big performances when they needed to with just two Tests against Argentina remaining before the Boks must name a squad of 31 players for the World Cup. 

By now, coach Rassie Erasmus must be pretty close to having finality on the composition.

There are, however, a few uncertainties remaining and one of those comes in the form of 21-year-old Damian Willemse.  

Considered one of the brightest young prospects in South African rugby, Willemse has been sidelined since the beginning of June with a knee injury that required surgery. 

He has not featured in Western Province's Currie Cup campaign to date, and he is not currently with the Springboks in New Zealand. 

While Willemse has been out, Erasmus has given game time to Gelant at fullback against the Wallabies while 32-year-old World Cup winner Frans Steyn has played two matches off the bench. 

Against the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday, Steyn replaced centre Damian de Allende in the 56th minute at No 12. 

He was also the flyhalf cover for Handre Pollard in that match. 

There is no arguing against Steyn's pedigree or ability, but it is instead that versatility that makes him such an attractive option heading into the World Cup. 

In Steyn, the Boks have somebody who has 'been there and done it' before after he won the 2007 World Cup as a 20-year-old when he replaced the injured Jean de Villiers in the Bok team.

Ever since, Steyn has been incredibly highly rated, but his Bok involvement has been limited over the years because of reported contractual conflicts with SA Rugby. 

He is back now, though, and everyone in the Bok camp - including Erasmus - seems quite chuffed about that.

It does not spell good news for Willemse and his ambitions of playing at the global spectacle in Japan, however. 

Erasmus had said last year that he saw Willemse operating as the back-up fullback to Willie le Roux at the World Cup. 

Gelant, though, put himself firmly in the picture with a polished display against Australia two weekends ago, while Kolbe is another option at the back. 

When one throws Steyn into that mix, picking Willemse as the back-up No 15 is no longer so straightforward.

Ideally, Erasmus would like to add to Willemse's five Test caps before making up his mind, but that now seems impossible given his injury situation. 

He has started running again and he is expected to be back playing towards the end of August and the back-end of the Currie Cup. 

That might be cutting it a bit fine.

Taking injured players to a World Cup is always a gamble, and now that the Boks have Steyn back in the mix, Willemse might not be a gamble worth taking.

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