Super Rugby

10 or 15? Uncertainty remains over Willemse's best position

Damian Willemse (Gallo)
Damian Willemse (Gallo)

A mercurial talent like Damian Willemse should easily have a place in a 15-man game, but why is his best position still a topic of hot conjecture and is he losing ground on his contemporaries because of it?

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Activities in the transfer market didn’t only affect the players who chose to opt out of their existing contracts before Thursday night’s close of the 21-day window, but also had significant impact on where Willemse’s best position will be for the Stormers and Springboks in future.

Regular fullback Dillyn Leyds and flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis have been confirmed that they are departing Cape Town, while Welshman Jamie Roberts seems to have played his last cameo for the Stormers, which leaves Willemse with the option of three positions being at his disposal.

When the now voided Super Rugby season began Stormers coach John Dobson was certain that Willemse would be given time and ample opportunity to settle at flyhalf after spending most of his post-high school career oscillating between No 10 and No 15, with the occasional game at first centre.

The pendulum swung again, though, after Willemse had a poor game against the Blues at Newlands, which the Stormers lost 33-14, and was shipped off to fullback the following match against the Sharks in Durban.

Dobson, a coach who is well versed at what it takes to develop fledgling talents, seemed to second guess his own decision to nail Willemse down at pivot. The pressure that came with the shock defeat to the Blues at home probably played a lot in the coach’s mind but the move deprived the 22-year-old, and onlookers, of the chance for him to measure himself against his peer Curwin Bosch.

Bosch, 22, who was also tossed around different position by previous coaches, landed in Sean Everitt’s hands champing at the bit to impress at 10. And he did.

SA Under-20 assistant coach Bafana Nhleko, who saw Willemse close up at the 2018 World Rugby Under-20 Championships, says consistency in one position is the only cure to the uncertainty.

"For a player like him, who is obviously multi-skilled, he needs that consistent game time in one position," says Nhleko.

"Every position has a certain requirement and the more you play in it, the more you start focusing on the skills required to play there.

"No everyone is born with the full package, you will come with one or two good things and we (coaches) start developing the other skills as we go on. "He’s a good 'baller' and he likes playing close to the line and he’s got good feet. This year it seems they are trying to work on his kicking game and bring that to the fore. He’s a damn good defender and he’s definitely got something more about him.

"If he were to start playing at 15, then people will start asking questions about the high ball catching and his kicking off hand. He’s not going to win unless he settles in a position.

"I don’t know the full picture but it seems he enjoys playing 10 and he wants to be a 10, so why not let him grow with that sort of decision-making?"

The Springboks were set to preen their depth in talent this winter against Scotland and Georgia before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened. At new head coach Jacques Nienaber’s disposal are stand-offs Handre Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Bosch.

The gluttony continues at fullback where Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds, Warrick Gelant and Aphelele Fassi are stellar options. Faced with such stiff competition, Willemse, despite oozing natural talent, is well behind both pecking orders.

"At international level, most guys get introduced in different positions but that’s just to allow them to ease into Test rugby," says Nhleko.

"The picture changes in Test rugby because the margins are so small in terms of error rate and execution.

"It’s not the worst thing for him to play for the Boks in different positions but ultimately, if he wants to be a good No 10, and that’s where he derives confidence from, then he will need consistent game time there."

A move to inside centre would be radical but is perhaps the best place to accommodate a player of his skills, build and appetite for the line. However, South African teams, especially the Stormers and Boks, are not partial to a play-making 12.

"I don’t know how the Stormers coaching systems are running but I think it would be fair to give him a shot a 10 before we can start thinking about positional changes," says Nhleko.

"You get dynamic attacking players like Richie Mo’unga but he’s got a good kicking game. I don’t think he’s as good a defender as Damian. Therefore, if Willemse works on things he needs to improve, I don’t see why he can’t compete at that level."

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