Stormers coach Robbie Fleck got it right in picking Damian Willemse at flyhalf and trusting the youngster’s natural rugby playing talents. Willemse is a key ingredient to the evolution of the Stormers in 2018.
My hope is that Willemse plays this season’s home quarter-final because he can only benefit from the occasion.
The Stormers, whether they win or lose the quarter-final, aren’t currently good enough to win this year’s title. The benefit of trusting young players like Willemse in the next fortnight will bring reward next year.
Willemse, this time last year, was preparing to play for the Western Province Under-18 Craven Week team. A few weeks before that he was starring for Paul Roos Gymnasium and a few weeks after that he was playing for SA Schools.
The progression to SA Under-20 was no surprise and for those who have followed his young career it should also have been no surprise at how easily he has settled into Super Rugby.
Willemse is going to make mistakes and he made plenty in the Stormers win against the Sunwolves.
But he is 19-years-old and game management and accuracy in everything he does is something that will improve every time he plays. What he has shown is that he has the temperament to play professional rugby. Many very good and exceptional young talents have over the years struggled with the transition from schoolboy to professional player.
Willemse, very much like Sharks teenager Curwin Bosch, has effortlessly dealt with the pace of the game and also the mental demands. Willemse, like Bosch, will improve physically and will also naturally be more conditioned once out of his teens.
Fleck spoke of Willemse’s special talent and of the natural skill set of the player. He then spoke of areas of his game that would need attention but added it wasn’t unexpected because of the player’s inexperience.
The most pleasing aspect was that Fleck, in detailing Willemse’s two starts as a Super Rugby flyhalf, reinforced the qualities of the player and not how much the player needed to learn.
Fleck picked a 19-year-old and has embraced the fact that Willemse is 19.
Willemse’s a wonderful selection and more of these type of selections have to be encouraged within the South African professional environment.
There are more like Willemse and Bosch, in terms of talent and pedigree, coming out of the Under-20 ranks. Pick them, surround them with that mix of hardened veteran and invest in their game time.
It sounds a simple formula but it is not followed enough in South African rugby.
Fleck’s Stormers, filled with young talent, are a work in progress. I agree with SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett when he says the Stormers needed to toughen up, find more mongrel in their defence and more consistency in their play ... or else.
But I also don’t believe they were ever a Super Rugby title contender this season. This was a year about restoring respect and regaining confidence after the humiliation of the 2016 home quarter-final whipping against the Chiefs.
The squad, in 2017, has shown an ability to match it with very good teams in the competition but also been exposed against the very best like the Crusaders and Lions.
The expectation this year has already been met and if the Stormers advance beyond the quarter-finals they would have exceeded expectation.
The Stormers are very much where the Lions were three seasons ago, in terms of squad development and results. Back then the Lions were a nine from 16 team that produced the brilliant and the bad over those 16 matches.
The Lions coaching staff and the players continued to trust and believe in their strengths, individually and collectively. Equally they never dismissed the critique of where they were vulnerable or weak. They acknowledged the flaw and worked to eradicate and improve.
The Lions of 2017 are at their peak of this cycle. I believe this peak will end with Super Rugby glory.
The Stormers are a year into a three year cycle and the Sharks, despite nine wins in 14 matches, haven’t quite convinced that their first year cycle will automatically translate to year two in 2018.
I don’t quite know what to make of the Sharks this year. They’ve been a one step forward and one step back team all year and it would have infuriated and frustrated coach Robert du Preez.
The Bulls can only get better with John Mitchell’s arrival. Expect them to be a damn side fitter and harder to beat in 2018. Mitchell won’t work a miracle in year one but he will work their rugby.
It was five odd years ago that the Lions were the joke of South African rugby and Mitchell turned them into Currie Cup champions and introduced the core of today’s champions-elect to Super Rugby.
It’s only fitting that he will be back in South African rugby to witness what hopefully will be their crowning glory in a month’s time.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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