- Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick believes Damian Willemse will have a major impact on the national team's Test campaign in 2021.
- The 23-year-old Stormers star has found consistency at fullback and looks set to engage in a thrilling future battle for a Bok jersey with the Sharks' Aphelele Fassi.
- But Stick also notes that Willie le Roux's mentoring will be key to get the best out of both rookies.
Despite the overall excitement of having a number of rookies in the Springbok setup, it's been Damian Willemse who's been the talk of the camp this week.
Mzwandile Stick, South Africa's off-the-ball guru, admitted that the Stormers fullback's return to form in the Rainbow Cup has been highly encouraging.
The gifted 23-year-old exponent had been finding it tough at flyhalf during last season's Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup campaigns and a nasty public spat between WP Rugby and the media over reports of his over R5 million new salary also threatened to become a distraction.
Instead, Willemse knuckled down and focused on consistency, delivering composed performances with some neat attacking touches.
"We talked about him earlier in the week and we all agreed that he's been in the best shape he's ever been," said Stick.
"The space where he's in currently, especially in those last few games for the Stormers, is great. He was secure under high balls and has been showing his X-factor.
"He's in a good space. Bringing him into our system to work him and keep on improving his fundamentals, it’s a massive thing for me as a coach. I'm excited to see what he will bring this season."
As a result, Willemse has arguably established himself as the candidate next in line to take over from Willie le Roux at the highest level, but Sharks star Aphelele Fassi's dramatic improvement suggests the race might be closer than some perceive it to be.
However, the key remains for the grizzled Le Roux to first help prepare his deputies for the rigours of the international stage.
"The most important thing, actually, where we are currently, is that we have guys like Willie le Roux. He has massive amounts of experience. He knows what it takes to play at the top level at Test-match level," said Stick.
"The biggest thing for us was to give opportunities to youngsters like Aphelele. He needs to feed off Willie's experience. That way, we don't have to wait for Willie to retire and start from scratch when it comes to Aphelele.
"What they have been doing very well in our system currently, in our camps, the youngsters are asking really, really good questions of our experienced players. They go to guys like Willie and interact with them, they train with them.
"They want to learn what triggers the experienced players... what they do off the field that helps them to be prepared for the game."
Interestingly - and eminently justifiably too - that mentoring relationship might mean that Willemse and Fassi actually make their mark quicker in the Green-and-Gold.
Thomas du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Joseph Dweba, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Dan du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese
Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies, Sanele Nohamba, Cobus Reinach, Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Morne Steyn, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Wandisile Simelane, Frans Steyn, Aphelele Fassi, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Yaw Penxe, Rosko Specman, Damian Willemse
"Aphelele Fassi doesn’t have to wait for seven years to have the same experience that Willie has, if Willie can help a youngster like him now. Then in two to three months, when a youngster gets an opportunity to play at Test-match level, we know that he knows what it takes to be there," said Stick.
"You don't want to give Aphelele Fassi game time at the same time as Rosko Specman or Yaw Penxe. Then you are not helping them, because they will be under massive pressure at Test-match level. You want to make sure that you build their confidence through allowing them to work with experienced players."