The awkward moment Willemse reminded he can't get ahead of himself
Damian Willemse hasn’t known anything like it so far in his embryonic Test level career with the Springboks. He made a Test debut as a 20-year-old in 2018 but it hasn’t been until now that his face has properly fitted into his country’s selection plans, the utility back getting chosen to play in all six of their most recent matches – once as a starter at full-back and the rest as backline bench cover.
It’s a run of regular appearances in stark contrast to what has gone before, intermittent use in his breakthrough season followed by some harsh lessons the following year where he only made the World Cup squad as a mid-tournament injury call-up, going on to play just a single match – the easy-street win over Canada.
Now, though, the value of Willemse to the Springboks is considerably altered. New head coach Jacques Nienaber certainly likes the cut of his jib, including him in all of the Test match 23s announced since the start of July. And yet, the reminders of not getting too far ahead of himself are never too far away for Willemse.
There he was on the virtual media briefing link on Friday from the Gold Coast, replying to a question posed by RugbyPass about his increased value to the Springboks, when assistant coach Mzwandile Stick interrupted to remind him he still can’t be sure of his place in the current pecking order. “If you make the squad of 23,” interjected the backs coach mid-sentence.
A smile eventually accompanied the spontaneous interruption but all the same, it was a subtle shot across the bows of Willemse, a reminder that the 23-year-old must become an expert in his versatile role if he is to continue to figure in Nienaber’s Springboks selection plans.
Ex-All Blacks boss Hansen didn't hold back in his weekend criticism of the Springboks, stinging remarks that were put to South African boss Jacques Nienaber at his Tuesday media conference in Australia https://t.co/LYPpSdHKXd
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 31, 2021
“I’m really fortunate to be able to be in the match 23,” he enthused in his initial answer before Stick’s mid-flow interruption. “There are a lot of quality players like Frans (Steyn), Jessie (Kriel) all missing out and for me, it is an opportunity every week to go and use the opportunity and make the best out of it…”
Then came the unexpected interruption before the continuation of his answer. “…If I do make the squad of 23. I am really enjoying it. The team has been performing very well so it has been enhancing my chance to get into the team and to continue my run, but I am happy with the way the team is going and the trust in what the coaches have been putting into me. I have been really enjoying that and I’m looking forward to the next four weeks.”
Fresh from series victory over the Lions and back-to-back successes over Argentina in a Test season that commenced with a win over Georgia nine weeks ago in Pretoria, the Springboks are now quarantining in Queensland ahead of their upcoming battles versus the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
It’s a huge trip for Willemse and some fellow youngsters in the Springboks set-up and he paid particular tribute to the encouragement given by the likes of veteran Steyn. The 34-year-old could understandably be frustrated by his own limited matchday involvement in recent months, but not a jot. Instead, his presence in the squad has been invaluable to those rookies making their way at Test level.
“I have been training with Frans the entire time leading up to the upcoming Tests and I must say he is such a chilled guy,” reckoned Willemse later in the Springboks media briefing. “He is working really hard at his game and just to have him with us, his presence in the team, he is always calm, always comes up with the plan, always clear communication.
“I have been really enjoying him as a person on and off the field. He really works hard at his game and to think a guy like him at his age as well, who is probably not 100 per cent, he still gives it 100 per cent. I have been really enjoying him and he is helping a lot of the youngsters, especially in the backline.
“(Aphelele) Fassi and I and a few other guys, you can really see how we are enjoying him. Frans Steyn has really been helping me a lot when it comes to game management, the way he also keeps the ball. I have been learning a few tricks from him and he is not shy to share them as well.”
It helps that Willemse is now more comfortable with his own versatility, more than happy to help out the Springboks in a variety of positions rather than insist he must be only be considered for one particular position. “For me, I don’t have a preferred position,” he explained. “The preferred position is to try and make the 23.
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— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 1, 2021
“There is a lot of quality players who aren’t fortunate enough to make the match 23 at the moment, guys with 40, 50, 60 caps behind their names. For me it is all about developing my skill set, working with the coaches, understanding the plan and if the plan is there for me, executing that and building on the current win rate of the team.
“The coaches are really helping me develop my skill set, whether it is required at No15 or No12. Especially coach Stick with the high balls, we work really hard on that, and just some game management stuff if I want to play at No15. And then at No12 there is a clear role for me, what I need to do in the team.
“We have a specific plan for how we want to win Test matches… Management is putting the team in the right place so we can force pressure and turn the ball over and make our wingers like Makazole (Mapimpi) and Cheslin (Kolbe) get into the game and score brilliant tries. That is one of the areas that I have been working on, trying to focus on.
“I had this conversation earlier today and we were talking about how small the margins are. If you do make a mistake it might be a small mistake but it will be five, seven points, especially against teams like Australia and New Zealand who have a lot of skilful players and a lot of armour in their backline as well. It’s all about playing clever and playing smart against good opposition, but we also have a plan.”
Having arrived in Australia last Friday, the Springboks will soon be free from quarantine at their Gold Coast hotel and will be able to venture outside that facility. When it happens, Willemse has one specific goal. “I want to go to the beach. We are looking forward to that.
“Everyone is really excited to go into normal life again if I can call it that. We have been in the bubble for quite some time. We are staying at a very nice hotel on the Gold Coast and there is a vibe in the team. Everybody is getting along and for the next four weeks, it is going to be rugby focused and making sure we continue to deliver the results on the field.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 2, 2021
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