One of the great debates around the Springboks squad in recent seasons it has been the decision of the coaching staff to use Damian Willemse in the opening role. After Manie Libbok produced a solid performance in South Africa’s win over Australia, Willemse got the pivotal role in the clash against the All Blacks in Auckland.
Willemse was unable to stamp his authority on the game, especially in the first half when the Springboks were being pummeled all over the park. With their backs against the wall, the Springboks needed some direction on the pitch, but it wasn’t coming from that opening channel.
To be fair, a number of Willemse’s teammates also seemed to be in shock in the opening stages and there was a lack of quality ball to work with.
It could also be argued that Willemse was rusty, having not played since URC and also recently recovered from a knee injury. However, it was a test match and you would have expected more from a player with his pedigree.
There was some indecision with the ball in hand and the back line seemed bereft of ideas for much of the time when he was in the opening half. The Boks looked much better on offense when Willie le Roux took over that first receiver role, and it’s a tactic the Boks adopted on a few occasions with him and Willemse starting on the same back line.
Willemse has plenty of skill and speed and the full-back position gives him more time to make decisions and terrorize defenders around the pitch. Maybe it’s time Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber took a page out of John Dobson’s book when it comes to using Willemse in the back line.
The Stormers coach preferred to wear the 25-year-old in the No.15 and No.12 jerseys during the URC and European season and he flourished. In Auckland, another glaring difference between the All Blacks and the Springboks was the kicking game.
All Blacks fly half Richie Mo’unga and fullback Beauden Barrett put the Boks under constant pressure with high balls and accurate kicks in play and the Boks didn’t get that from their midfielder on Saturday. Springbok managers see Willemse as a useful player and the latest successor to Francois Steyn, who has now retired from the game.
It’s also understandable that Erasmus and Nienaber are preparing for every eventuality and with injuries being a big part of the game, Willemse could be the great fly-half solution if resources get tight during the Rugby World Cup.
However, the Boks would do well to give Libbok an extended run in that opening role until Handre Pollard returns to full fitness. The more confident Libbok is on the international stage, the better it will be for the Springboks.