Cape Town - The Stormers’ skills guru Paul Feeney has coached All Black wing Rieko Ioane so it says something about Damian Willemse’s potential that the Kiwi should describe him as a talent who is as good as anyone he has coached.
Feeney though is not in a rush to join those who are describing Willemse as a great No10 in the making after the 19-year-old’s three good performances in succession against the Highlanders, Blues and Reds, according to the supersport.com website.
Feeney, who worked as one of the assistant coaches at the Blues before heading to South Africa in late 2016, has just seen too many young flyhalves pushed too young and have too much expected of them not to be wary of doing the same thing with Willemse.
“I coached Gareth Anscombe when he was just 20 and everyone thought he was going to be the next big thing in New Zealand but then when he didn’t push on as quickly as everyone wanted him to they said he was on the scrapheap at the age of 21,” said Feeney.
Anscombe is a good example to use as a player who too much was expected of as a flyhalf while still young. At the age of 26 Anscombe is now playing for Wales, but he might still be in New Zealand had it not been for a perception five years ago that he wasn’t delivering what he was expected to deliver.
Feeney is a big believer in the dictum that it takes time to mature, and he believes that is even more the case at flyhalf, which he sees as a special position.
“Damian is a super talent, he’s one of the most talented players I have ever coached and talent wise he has everything, but No10 is a special position – will he be a Beauden Barrett, a Jonny Wilkinson or a Johnny Sexton?" asked Feeney.
"The No10 isn’t there for flair, he’s there to push the team around the park and be smart. But he has the bonus of having more flair than anyone else.
“So if he can have the same brain as a Sexton, a Wilkinson, a Dan Carter or an Andrew Mehrtens, then he will kill it. We will only know that in time. He is still young. He needs to develop. That is why I am careful of opening the lid too much, of expecting too much. As a No10 you have to be the brains of your team. It’s all about the computer you have in your head. You have to push your team around the park and know when to kick, when to pass, when to run, and that only comes with time.”
In Feeney’s view a player has only properly settled at Super Rugby level after he has played 30 to 40 games. Before that, young or new players are learning and are yet to become completely comfortable.
“You will see once Damian gets to 30 or 40 games whether he has the capabilities to be a great flyhalf,” says Feeney.
“He is definitely a talent. He has much talent as anyone I have ever worked with. Curwin Bosch (of the Sharks) is also a special talent, but with both of them only time will tell how far they will go as flyhalves.”
Bosch is currently playing mainly at fullback for the Sharks. Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck believes the only way to learn to play flyhalf is to play flyhalf, and Feeney agrees that Willemse needs as “much time in the saddle” as he can get. But he is also not completely averse to Willemse playing a few games at fullback like he did at the end of the last Currie Cup season.
“There are similarities between 10 and 15 and the benefit of playing at fullback is that you get a good perspective from the back on what is happening in front of you, you can start assessing for yourself what the good options are and what the bad options are,” said Feeney.
“It is a fairly easy transition between flyhalf and fullback. But I would rather not see him bouncing around between too many positions. The more experience he can get as a flyhalf so much the better.”
Life might get more interesting for Willemse and more comfortable for the Stormers coaches quite soon as Jean-Luc du Plessis, who started off as the first choice Stormers pivot last year but was ruled out by long term injury, is back playing again.
A minor rib injury sustained in his first game back has put the son of former Bok wing and coach Carel out for another week, but Feeney recognises Du Plessis as a big talent who will introduce some competition for Willemse at flyhalf.
“The thing about Damian is that he is very young. You will recall that last year we weren’t keen to push him, and it was only much later in the season, when there were injuries, that we ended up starting him out of necessity. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with playing at flyhalf.”
At least with Du Plessis back in the mix, there won’t be quite as much pressure on Willemse to play in every game and as Du Plessis is a bit older than him Willemse will be able to learn off him. Given Willemse’ current form, however, it is hard to see anyone other than the 2016 South African Schools flyhalf wearing the Stormers No10.