Sport24 reported on Monday that the Stormers will most likely persist with Damian Willemse at flyhalf, despite calls for him to be dropped as he has been “struggling somewhat to get his backline firing on attack.” Good, the Stormers should buck the South African trend of thrusting youth into the highest level and then writing them off when they don’t meet the enormous expectations placed on their shoulders.
Damian Willemse is incredibly talented, and has proven more often than not, to be an asset rather than a liability. You don’t debut for the Stormers at 18, the Springboks at 20 and then travel to the World Cup at 21 if you don’t have what it takes to mix it with the best and potentially become the best. However, erratic goal kicking and perhaps a bit too much forcing of play sees critics and the public already calling for Willemse to be chopped after just four rounds. After four rounds, remember, in which the Stormers remain undefeated and at the top of the table. It is baffling that his unique and un-coachable ball skills, footwork and eye for space are already being overlooked (again, after four successful rounds for the Stormers), because coachable aspects like his goal kicking and structural play have been erratic.
It’s not as if the Stormers are in crisis mode and need to revert to a game plan and team selection based on damage control rather than excitement and winning. Quite the opposite; with arguably the strongest pack in the tournament and one of the soundest defensive structures so far, the Stormers have the platform on which to grow the talent of a backline that is laden with X Factor. Most notably, the nine – ten combination of Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse. In speaking to Netwerk 24, Stormers backline coach Dawie Snyman said “we want to work on combinations, so the more Herschel and Damian play together, the better it will be going forward.” I agree completely. It will be better for the Stormers and it will be better for the Boks. Granted there will be hiccups, both those players produce game changing moments of brilliance at least once a match, and the more they are given the opportunity and the backing to do so, the more numerous those moments will become, and the fewer the structural, tactical (and coachable) problems will become.
Willemse needs to be applauded for his efforts and abilities, but guided in his decision making and execution. He needs to be held accountable for his kicking, but given the opportunity to work on it and build confidence before being written off. No player is the finished product at 21. Think about Percy Montgomery, who begun his Bok career an electric 13 with an incredibly inconsistent goal kicking record, and ended it as the best fullback in the world at the time, kicking South Africa to World Cup victory and amassing the most ever points by a Springbok, thanks largely to his boot. . Think Beauden Barrett, who seven years after his international debut still has questions asked of his kicking, but has nobody questioning his position as one of the world’s best backline players. We tend to glorify consistent mediocrity, while vilifying inconsistent brilliance. Let’s give brilliance a chance and see if it flowers into consistency.