Damian Willemse is definitely the real deal. I had heard a lot about him from Johan Rupert, because his daughter Caroline is the one who found Damian and paid for him to go to Paul Roos, but it’s only now that I’m back in South Africa on holiday that I’ve been able to watch him in Super Rugby.
He ticks all the boxes and what I like most is that he’s quick. I know people say that he’s brave on defence and he kicks nicely, but one thing that South Africa has lacked for a long time is a really quick No 10.
That’s why I picked Jaco van der Westhuyzen at flyhalf for the Springboks. If you’ve got a quick 10, then defenders stand narrow to close him down and that opens space for the guys outside. In Round 4, Willemse picked up a loose ball just outside his 22 and ran away from the Highlanders to score in the corner. Having a quick flyhalf is something that would change the way teams defend against us.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will go to another two World Cups in the next six years and it’s a no-brainer – Willemse is the guy for the No 10 jersey.
If we go with a flyhalf who is now 19, then we’ll be in a situation similar to what England had with Jonny Wilkinson, Australia had with Stephen Larkham and the All Blacks had with Dan Carter – the same 10 for a long time.
That continuity is very important. Van der Westhuyzen started 17 consecutive Tests for me and I remember seeing a stat at the time that showed how out of the ordinary that was for South Africa.
The likes of Joel Stransky, Henry Honiball, Jannie de Beer, Braam van Straaten and Louis Koen had to make do with a handful of consecutive Tests in the saddle. And over the past five years, we’ve had Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Morne Steyn and Pat Lambie. We got the best performances out of everyone when Fourie du Preez and Butch James played nine or 10 matches together in a row, then that combination came right.
Picking a youngster in such a high-profile position does come with its challenges, but they’re nice challenges if he’s managed properly.
Whenever I handed the flyhalf his jersey before a Test match I always said, “accept the fact that you will be criticised more than me!” As the Bok flyhalf, when the team wins it’s because you “were a general”, and when they lose it’s because you “never took charge”. If the coach spends time with Willemse and explains that to him, and the player accepts it, then it won’t influence him. A guy like Jaco used to rush out on a Sunday morning to see what rating he got in the newspaper – he’d get a 4 or 5 in Rapport and that would affect him.
Self-confidence doesn’t seem to be a problem for Willemse. Last year he made no secret of his expectation to start for the Stormers in 2018 despite facing competition from Rob du Preez and Jean-Luc du Plessis.
That’s a very good sign. Some of the best youngsters I’ve coached had that trait – Frans Steyn and John Smit didn’t want to hear about the pecking order, they expected the coach to pick the best player now. Often coaches will say, “your time will come” but it doesn’t work like that with elite talent, because if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Frans Steyn was 19 and he played in a World Cup final. The only reason you would pick a teenager is because he’s got that self-belief, otherwise he wouldn’t be there as a 19-year-old.
You want that attribute to be part of his makeup, but you also want him to understand that there’s a responsibility that comes with playing at 10 – you’re the general and you’re in charge and you should be able to tell anybody anything because you’re controlling the game. It’s a fine line because you don’t want the guy to think he’s more important than everyone else; you want him to understand that he’s part of the team.
Keeping him away from the media can help with that. It can become very difficult to do that because everyone wants to know who the kid is and, for the player, the more exposure he gets, the more likely he is to get endorsements.
Willemse will need the support of senior players; who you put around him is important because they can guide the youngster. Calling on older and wiser guys, like Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, would help shield Willemse and reduce some of the pressure, on and off the field.
One of the fears is that there have been young players who have got that opportunity and burnt out. They got overexposed and started believing their own press. That’s the challenge when you’re dealing with a sportsman like that because you don’t want him to end up being someone who plays three Tests and then fizzles out or, as they say, “vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot”.
Willemse has the potential to be the Bok 10 for the forseeable future, if we manage him with the support of senior players, many of whom are playing overseas.