Currie Cup

Willemse: SA’s very own Phil Bennett?

2017-08-14 06:53
Damian Willemse (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Most Currie Cup teams have only played a third of their round-robin fixtures so far, but the "try of the season" mantle should already be safely in the cupboard.

It is going to take something even more special than Damian Willemse's dazzling solo effort for Western Province against the Blue Bulls at Newlands on Saturday to steal the young flyhalf's thunder over the next few weeks ... and that simply may not be possible.

Courtesy of an electric first half, in which they dotted all six of their tries and bagged a fairy-tale 42-13 lead at the break, WP eventually repelled their old northern rivals 45-34 after the visitors mounted a gutsy second-half comeback.

But Willemse's jaw-dropping dot-down, as he somehow dodged the heaviest of defensive traffic in the visitors' quarter to burst through at the posts as if on a magic carpet, would have been an enduring talking point amidst the modest crowd as they left the old stadium.

He repeatedly used the most outrageous, bamboozling of footwork to get past intended Bulls stoppers, threw a dummy pass or two that only added to the defensive confusion and bewilderment, and then accelerated with a sprinter's zeal as space aptly opened up ahead of him to add the finishing touches.

"One of the best I have seen," WP coach and yeoman Newlands loyalist John Dobson told Sport24 on Sunday. "It was up there with Niel Burger’s famous try against Northern Transvaal at the ground in 1984."

Burger was a different beast to Willemse, and not just because of their contrasting positions: he was a tree trunk-thighed right wing ahead of his time on the sheer power front, but the touchdown at the corner-flag that he registered all those years ago - during the peak of WP's golden years of Currie Cup monopoly - also combined some stepping artistry, a la the exciting new No 10, that saw him get over despite mass attention from defenders.

The Currie Cup may possess well less than the gravitas of old, but Willemse's display of sublime skill and audacity - shades also of the twinkle-toed, great Springbok fullback HO de Villiers in his late 1960s heyday, I fancy - ought nevertheless to command YouTube hits globally for some time to come whenever rugby enthusiasts seek widely-sourced "greatest tries" entertainment.

Of course De Villiers, now 72, performed much of his wizardry in greater space, but if one was looking for similar brilliance in footwork from a flyhalf more specifically, then Willemse is showing healthy signs - he is still only 19 - of developing into a modern-day equivalent of Phil Bennett, the Welsh dynamo of the 1970s who earned global affection for his crowd-pleasing array of attacking skills.

For swerving genius, specifically, it might be educative to measure up what Willemse did on Saturday (granted, at a lesser tier of competition) against the qualities demonstrated by Bennett, while deep in his own half, in the lead-up to what many pundits still regard as the finest, most iconic try of all time scored by scrumhalf Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the 1973 All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park.

Naturally that is not to say that Willemse is already well along the road to matching the overall rugby package and legend status of Bennett; he is just starting out on his first-class road after also sampling a bit of Super Rugby for the first time earlier in 2017.

But Saturday's try, and the general sense of authority and confidence he brought to the No 10 jersey for Province, justly earned him the man-of-the-match laurel and suggested he will only go from strength to strength as the competition winds onward.

Apart from the silkier strings to his bow, the Paul Roos product and former SA Schools star also kicked out of hand assuredly, and - aided by his useful 1.83m height and 87kg weight - is no shrinking violet when it comes to defending his key channel.

It is just possible that, sooner rather than later, he will challenge the Sharks' Curwin Bosch for "wunderkind" inclusion in the broad Springbok squad at pivot.

Bosch, not long 20, is part of the Bok party named recently by national coach Allister Coetzee for the initial phase of the Rugby Championship, and he sports certain advantages, and drawbacks, at this stage when compared with the fellow-greenhorn from further down the coast.

On the plus side for Bosch, he is a very accomplished place-kicker, with a pleasing range into the bargain, and that is so often a critically necessary attribute in a No 10, who is more often than not tasked with main responsibility off the tee.

Willemse is not currently performing that role for Province - fullback SP Marais landed the goals with unerring accuracy against the Bulls - so it is an impediment at this stage to any fast-tracking (albeit pretty unlikely immediately) to the Bok mix.

As things stand in the Bok "first team", the flyhalf - the incumbent is Elton Jantjies - is also the required place-kicker.

But where Willemse may well already have an edge over the more slightly-built Bosch is that his sturdier physique makes it likelier he will take the ball closer to the advantage line, and also make firmer tackles in defensive situations.

Whatever their respective merits and demerits at this fledgling stage, it must be heartening for the green and gold cause down the line that such fresh-faced flyhalves are making their presences felt ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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