Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The last year of rugby at Newlands could well coincide with the coming of age of Stormers wunderkind Damian Willemse at flyhalf.
That is the pretty confident prediction of specialist kicking consultant and former Springbok and SA Sevens international Vlok Cilliers, who is off soon to assist France in that department of play in the 2020 Six Nations.
Speaking in Stellenbosch earlier this week, Cilliers said he believed the 21-year-old would quickly demonstrate in looming Super Rugby - the Capetonians open at home to the Hurricanes on February 1 - the benefits of his few months on Saracens' books in the English Premiership.
"Damian should come back a better player in January from his stint with them ... playing in tough conditions, for a strong, well-coached club, and one which has a big emphasis on a smart kicking game, too," Cilliers said.
"If you can't kick well, you can't play for Saracens; it's as simple as that. So he will pick up tremendous experience ... including having a bit of a chance to rub shoulders with Owen Farrell as he returns to the club mix after England's World Cup.
"Tapping into his knowledge and strengths will be valuable."
Willemse, who had a 2019 campaign badly interrupted by a knee injury, is expected to be the regular first choice at pivot under the new, John Dobson-led Stormers coaching regime in 2020, a likelihood that only increased when the cash-challenged union offloaded Josh Stander, one of last year's No 10s in their squad, to Japanese employment.
The former Paul Roos sensation will compete primarily now with Jean-Luc du Plessis for the flyhalf jersey, although Du Plessis has been consistently troubled for two or three years by injury, mostly related to groin woes, and only shown flashes of his earlier potential more recently.
Cilliers says that Willemse and Du Plessis, assuming that both keep clean bills of health, will at least provide the variety of a right- and left-footed kicking option respectively.
But he fancies Willemse to pull clear in the tussle ... and possibly even challenge for the top of the Springbok flyhalf pecking order by the end of the competition.
"I spoke to Damian after the World Cup, just before he returned to Sarries, and he said that the amount of knowledge he picked up after being added to the the Bok squad in Japan was enormous.
"Just being part of that successful system again, the coaching, the way he observed Handre Pollard (the frontline No 10) operate - on game day, in the week - and the leadership role, the language he was talking. It was the old story of the sponge, absorbing so much.
"I still think he can become one of the best flyhalves in the world if he can just fine-tune his kicking game a bit. We all know that.
"His general talent is off the charts. He is happy to play close to gain line when required, as well ... he has the physical attributes and isn't afraid.
"He will also probably have to take on the place-kicking more seriously: there is no more SP Marais to do that role from the fullback position, and Stander's gone.
"But if he has a great Super Rugby season, all round, he can even be a serious threat to Pollard. He will certainly keep Elton Jantjies right on his toes (as Pollard's current main back-up)."
While Willemse's halfback alliance with fellow-Bok Herschel Jantjies, 23, shapes up as one of the most exciting tournament-wide in the next edition of Super Rugby, Cilliers sounds a note of caution, as both remain relatively inexperienced in generalship.
"Herschel has yet to prove he can play under the pressure of a long, starting shift in really big matches. It is different providing a few minutes of impact (as he has often done in his early Test career): you aren't really managing a game, taking control, easing the pressure on the ten.
"This will be a big season for him in his own development, but if those two click as a unit ..."
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