Bok RWC party: Late Willemse bid in vain?

Damian Willemse (Gallo)
Damian Willemse (Gallo)

Cape Town - Close ... but no cigar.

That may be the Springbok World Cup squad fate of Damian Willemse, the precocious attacking talent who did as much as he could at Currie Cup level in Bloemfontein on Saturday to try to steal what many believe might only be (or have been) a late passage to Japan.

While there is still an outside chance that he has already cracked the nod anyway - Rassie Erasmus reveals his 31-strong selection at around 15:00 on Monday - smarter money suggests that the electric 21-year-old was always battling against time after only two domestic comeback appearances following his serious knee injury.

Did he do enough in the losing Western Province cause (38-33) against the Free State Cheetahs to persuade the head coach to scratch out someone else’s name from his intended list and insert Willemse’s instead, if that was something Erasmus was prepared to contemplate at this eleventh-hour stage?

The answer can only be a cautious “maybe”.

On the plus side, it is increasingly feasible that his performance in the thrilling, breathless encounter - he went the full 83 minutes of it as Province’s flyhalf - was sufficient for the Bok mastermind to fairly confidently pencil in Willemse as one of his standby crew if necessary for the tournament.

The highly versatile player (a hallmark which only increases his attractiveness for that status) had a terrific first half, his clever hand skills and those celebrated stepping and shimmying qualities often being instrumental in the visitors, under severe pressure to crack the semis, opening up a promising 26-12 lead at the break.

Willemse, who boasts five Bok caps from the 2018 season but has not yet graced the green and gold jersey this year, made one eye-catching break and then deft offload in the 37th minute to slash open the Cheetahs’ defence and tee up Dillyn Leyds for a sparkling try.

A further dot-down by Province in the 46th minute, stretching the lead to 33-12, was significant also because, at least for a few fleeting minutes, it was enough to see John Dobson’s charges leapfrog the Cheetahs on the table.

But that was also the signal for a wonderfully inspired clawback from the hosts, who posted four further tries without reply to turn the game right on its head and even top the final log, ensuring rights to a home semi-final and possible Bloemfontein showpiece as well on September 7.

They progressively drew the sting from Province’s game, with Willemse among many in blue and white jerseys to lose his effectiveness to a good degree as the sands trickled out - WP were eventually elbowed right out of the last-four frame.

He is earmarked soon for a short-term stint with Saracens in England, but national matters remain a priority if Erasmus considers him a key back-up man during the World Cup.

On the subject of possible Bok standby players, WP’s returning hooker Scarra Ntubeni had a solid enough match though he was overshadowed by chunky Cheetahs rival Joseph Dweba, the 23-year-old former SA Schools and SA U20 star who made an array of muscular carries.

But the big-hearted Ntubeni, who has overcome a plethora of setbacks in his career, made a popular Bok debut - if only fleetingly - against Argentina last weekend and presumably remains first cab off the rank back home if any of Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi or Schalk Brits were to be forced out of the looming major tournament in the specialist position.

The diligent-planning, unflappable Erasmus is unlikely to be influenced by a single Currie Cup match in disturbing his pecking order of players.

In the closing match of the final league weekend of the domestic competition, the respective loose-head props at Loftus were two very recent Bok squad members, Lizo Gqoboka (Bulls) and the Sharks’ utility-value Thomas du Toit.

Both the “Tank Engine” and Gqoboka scored close-range, barge-over tries in the first half, although it will surprise most observers if Erasmus deviates from an anticipated five-strong prop arsenal at RWC 2019 of Messrs Mtawarira, Kitshoff, Malherbe, Nyakane and Koch.

While his name hasn’t really featured for Bok honours at this stage, the Pretoria game served further notice that lean, lithe Sharks fullback and front-foot excitement machine Aphelele Fassi, 21, ought to be right in the frame for national recognition at the French-staged World Cup in 2023, and a fair bit before it …

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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