When a Dutch friend attended her first rugby match, all she could talk about afterwards was Willem. It was all Willem this and Willem that. Nothing about the game other than Willem.
Who the hell is Willem? Good question. It was worth asking even at the time, which was somewhere back in 2009/2010, when Willem de Waal was playing Currie Cup for Western Province. The flyhalf had been anonymous in general play, but because he kicked all his team’s points he was rugby’s equivalent of David Beckham to the uninitiated.
I thought about this when someone propelled the Sharks’ Robert du Preez into the Springbok mix on the basis of his goal-kicking exploits against the Blues. There is, of course, so much more to a flyhalf’s responsibilities than place-kicking, and there is some irony in the fact that Du Preez is actually playing No 10 at the Sharks ahead of Curwin Bosch.
If rugby was like American football and you had a specialist kicker who focused just on the kicking, Bosch would play every game. However, because flyhalf is considered a special position that demands extra responsibility, maturity and decision-making, Bosch is now serving an apprenticeship at fullback.
It’s not a universally popular decision among those who believe the best way to learn is to be in the saddle, just as not everyone was in agreement with head coach John Dobson’s decision to play Damian Willemse at fullback rather than pivot when he had a Currie Cup to win in 2017.
Yet there is precedent. Seeing that Dan Carter is so often mentioned as the embodiment of the perfect flyhalf, it is instructive to recall that he played much of his early senior rugby as an inside centre. In other words, he was eased into top rugby without the burden of the extra responsibility that comes with playing 10. Beauden Barrett in turn was allowed to develop in the shadow of Carter by playing off the All Blacks bench. By the time he became the front-line flyhalf he had already grown into a mature and experienced player.
The flyhalf who came closest to challenging Jonny Wilkinson in the years before Carter was Australia’s Stephen Larkham, who started out his rugby life as a fullback. Larkham was already a mature player when he was retreaded to No 10 so it is interesting to recall how he struggled initially with the switch.
When the Springboks won their first Tri-Nations in 1998, the deciding game was against the Wallabies at Ellis Park. The late Joost van der Westhuizen was instructed to pressurise Larkham and take him out of his comfort zone. The plan worked a charm and it was by exploiting Larkham’s vulnerabilities that the Boks won.
Larkham did learn though, and he got his own back on the Boks by dropping the goal that won the Wallabies the 1999 World Cup semi-final. Again, not that kicking points should define a flyhalf. History reflects that many of the most memorable goal-kicking exploits didn’t even come from flyhalves. New Zealand’s Don Clarke was a fullback, and Okey Geffin, who kicked South Africa to a 4-0 win over the All Blacks in 1949, was a prop.
Butch James was able to focus on his general play at the 2007 World Cup because his team had a place-kicking metronome at fullback by the name of Percy Montgomery. Montgomery will be remembered as a fullback, yet he was installed as the flyhalf in Harry Viljoen’s first game as Bok coach, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, when the team was instructed not to kick.
The switch to flyhalf was made all the more difficult for Montgomery by the way his potential to control play was cut in half. Telling a flyhalf he cannot kick is like telling Aiden Markram he must score runs quickly but he must do so without employing his cover drive.
The flyhalf is often referred to as the general because of the game-managing requirements of the position, and no matter how young a flyhalf is when he is first selected, he immediately assumes a quasi-leadership position. Sometimes the scrumhalf can be the general, and in that sense both James and Morne Steyn were able to shine in the years that Fourie du Preez wore the Bok No 9, but Du Preez was a freak.
A pivot can be a good rugby player without being a good flyhalf, and that is why Stormers assistant coach Paul Feeney has said he wants to wait before pronouncing Willemse as a potentially great flyhalf. Does he have the game managing computer that is needed by a top flyhalf? We know he has the talent, but only time will tell if he can be a Jonny Wilkinson.
That is why even after Willemse’s good games the talk from the Stormers coaches invariably focuses on the need to manage him.
There haven’t been many world-class flyhalves through history who were first choices in their teens and there is a reason for that. It is one position where that old mantra that if you are good enough you are old enough isn’t true. You’re only good enough when you’ve learnt enough.