Cape Town - Jean-Luc du Plessis' successful operation to correct troublesome groin and hip issues should pave the way for Damian Willemse to get plenty of game-time at fullback during the coming Super Rugby season, SuperSport.com reports.
Willemse, the South African Schools flyhalf in 2016, did well in his regular position in his first full Super Rugby season with the Stormers last year, but when he was selected to the Springbok squad off the back of those performances, national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus opted to introduce him to international rugby by playing him at fullback.
Late last year Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said that he would sit down with Willemse at the start of the final pre-season push to the mid-February start to the 2019 Super Rugby campaign and discuss his options with him.
"I have discussed it with him and we will sit down again in January and discuss it further. He is keen to give fullback a crack but obviously the team will come first and he understands that he will have to play where we need him," said Fleck.
"It is our responsibility at the Stormers to nurture him. I thought he had a great season at flyhalf last year, but Josh Stander did develop well during the Currie Cup and Jean-Luc is back."
At the time of talking Du Plessis, the son of former Bok wing Carel, had only just returned to training, but it is understood that he has impressed Fleck enough since then for the coach to become comfortable with the idea of Willemse specialising at fullback as far as it is possible to do so. The smart money then should be on Willemse playing fullback, with Du Plessis wearing the No 10 and Stander backing him up.
Willemse can of course move between the two positions, and probably will do so during the course of the season. However, Fleck will be mindful of Western Province coach John Dobson’s experience with Willemse during the playoff stages of the Currie Cup. Willemse was chosen at flyhalf for the domestic semi-final against the Blue Bulls but appeared to have his timing out as he rushed everything, and Dobson felt afterwards that he’d made a mistake by installing Willemse back at pivot at a time when he was thinking more like a fullback.
Dobson would probably feel in retrospect that his selections in the playoffs produced a negative double whammy for his team in the sense that by dropping Stander for the semi-final he also undermined the confidence the youngster had built up during an impressive first Currie Cup season. Perhaps it played a role in Stander fluffing his lines badly during the domestic decider against the Sharks.
Jean-Luc du Plessis, who was the first choice Stormers flyhalf when he was injured two years ago but has hardly played since then, is not the only injured player back in the mix and Fleck reckons his squad is heading for their annual pre-season camp in Hermanus on Monday in a better space than was the case last year.
"With the exception of the loss of JC Janse van Rensburg (and Raymond Rhule and Dewald Duvenage) we have pretty much the same group of players, but the difference now is that unlike last year everyone is fit," said Fleck.
"Last year we had a hangover in injuries from the previous Currie Cup and end-of-year Springbok tour, but that is not the case now. We have only two players on the injured list in the form of hooker Ramone Samuels and scrumhalf Paul de Wet, otherwise everyone is fit. Dan du Plessis is also fully recovered from his injuries and although Damian de Allende will be our first choice inside centre we are expecting a lot from Dan. He is a special player."
He is indeed, and so too is another youngster who has returned from injury - Cobus Wiese. The blindside flank, who can also play lock, missed WP’s Currie Cup campaign because of injury but is now back in the mix.
"Cobus has been back in training with us during the pre-season and he has been taking contact. He is ready to go," said Fleck.
Two players who developed during the Currie Cup and will bolster the Stormers options this year are No 8 Juarno Augustus and centre Ruhan Nel. The latter did so well in the domestic competition that he was selected into the Bok squad. Although he is not capped as a full international as yet, Nel will take the experience he gained from being part of the Bok group into his first full Super Rugby season after electing to specialise in the 15-man code following a successful career with the Blitzboks.
"What is particularly pleasing for us is the depth we have at the back this year. Ruhan had a great Currie Cup, JJ Engelbrecht is still with us, and let’s not forget EW Viljoen, who didn’t play in the Currie Cup. Sergeal Petersen showed in the Currie Cup what we missed when he was injured in Super Rugby," said the coach.
"Last year was difficult, there were times when we had just six backs at training. But this year we have two full backlines and we have lots of options. I’ve spoken about Damian (Willemse) possibly playing fullback but let’s not forget how good Dillyn Leyds has been there and we also have SP Marais, who adds a lot with his kicking game and did really well at left wing in the Currie Cup."
Fleck worked with a much smaller group of players - 26 - during December than at a similar stage of previous pre-seasons and he reckons it has had the desired effect.
"We’ve been able to focus much more on the individual and we had all the union coaches working with us in ensuring that the players got specialised attention," said Fleck.
"There has been a strong emphasis on skills and conditioning and I am confident that we will start Super Rugby with all the materials in place to have a really good season."
The Stormers start their Super Rugby season with a tough sequence of derby matches, starting with an away trip to Pretoria followed by a home game against the Lions before they travel to Durban to play the Sharks.
Their big warm-up match for the new season will be their clash with the Bulls in the Super Hero day at the Cape Town Stadium on February 3, with the Lions and Sharks facing each other there on the same day.