As former All Black Tony Brown greatly influenced Butch James’ development at the Sharks in 2006, similar Kiwi influence could only be beneficial for Stormers youngster Damien Willemse, writes Gavin Rich for Business Day
It was inevitable that comparisons would start to be made between Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch and it started happening after Stormers pivot Willemse’s classy and mature performance against the Blues at the weekend.
It is easy to see why the pair would start getting mentioned in the same conversations. Bosch was the star of the 2015 Craven Week at Paul Roos in Stellenbosch whereas Willemse starred at the 2016 national schools week at Kearsney College. Although Bosch has already made his Springbok debut, there has been a growing perception that he was pushed too early, something that appeared to be confirmed when he was exposed at the end of the last Currie Cup season.
So, if Willemse is a year younger than Bosch, don’t we run the risk of also pushing him too fast? The subject of pushing young pivots too soon is a sensitive issue in this country and so it should be. Think Gaffie du Toit, who everyone thought was going to be a world beater but never developed into one and even more recently Johan Goosen (there were other factors with Goosen but his career might have turned out differently had star status not been conferred on him when so young).
But Willemse is different to Bosch in that he is a more complete player than the Sharks player is. Bosch’s glaring weakness is an aversion to the physical aspects of the game, but no-one who saw Willemse play against the Blues will say the same about him. If anything, Willemse may get too involved in the physical exchanges.
There are very few in the game who have Bosch’s X-factor when it comes to being able to kick a drop-goal from almost anywhere, as he did from behind a retreating scrum near the halfway line in last year’s Currie Cup final. However, Willemse doesn’t give away much, if anything, to him when it comes to his kicking out of hand and his length of kick, and his place-kicking is excellent too.
Willemse has so many other strengths that Bosch lacks that he should leapfrog Bosch in the pecking order of youngsters vying to be in the Bok flyhalf contingent at next year’s World Cup and according to Stormers coach Robbie Fleck he is regarded highly by Kiwi experts who saw him in action on the recent tour of Australasia.
Even before the tour, he already had a fan in Stephen Donald, the former All Black who was part of the Chiefs squad that won the 2017 Super Rugby quarterfinal at Newlands. Willemse had only played three full Super Rugby games at that point but Donald told the Stormers management afterwards that they had a real gem in the making.
Mention of Donald introduces the subject of what could ease Willemse’s passage to the top. Another former All Black, Tony Brown, did wonders for the development of Butch James when he took on a mentoring role when he played for the Sharks in 2006. Other backline players, such as Brad Barrett, who later played for England, also apparently talk highly of the impact that Brown’s experience and professional approach had on them.
What could be a concern about Willemse is that he is not yet 20 and yet so much is being expected of him as effectively the only Stormers frontline flyhalf. It is understood that the Stormers approached Donald and he was keen to come to Cape Town for a season, but ultimately the negotiation fell through because Western Province couldn’t afford him.
That is a great pity because Donald would have been the perfect mentor for Willemse, who for all his precocious talent still has a lot to learn. There is much talk about the benefits of having Kiwi coaching influence, but there is a lot to be said for some New Zealand influence in the playing group too.
Brown was not the only New Zealander to have an impact. Although Chris Jack was at the end of his career when he played for WP, those who played with him remember him as an important influence who taught them a lot.
Willemse looks destined for big things, but someone like Donald could help his development in the same way that the late former West Indian great Malcolm Marshall helped accelerate the development of Shaun Pollock, Jonty Rhodes and Lance Klusener when he played for the Natal cricket team in the early 1990s.