The Stormers playmaker came of age last season and is vital to their cause

Springboks ten Damian Willemse uncovered

PICKING ONE of the most thrilling players to ply their trade in the United Rugby Championship last season as a key man may not seem too much of a vault. However, the versatile Springbok Damian Willemse has not always been the toast of Cape Town. Which makes the Stormers’ Cinderella league win last season – and Willemse’s role in it – all the sweeter.

“I’m glad you’ve picked up on him,” says Stormers boss John Dobson. “I’ve had him since he was 18 years old, with Western Province in the Currie Cup, and for some reason he attracted a lot of hate. I think because of his error rate.

“Everyone could see this amazing stepper and offloader, but we all train with him every day and he’s probably our standout professional in terms of knowing his detail and physically looking after himself.

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“If we’re playing touch or there is some handling drill, he is the most competitive. He is perfection as a player to coach. And he does the players’ birthdays – he keeps a calendar and brings a cake when it’s somebody’s birthday. He takes it on himself. He is extraordinary.

Springboks ten Damian Willemse

After beating Ulster (Inpho)

“Probably what people observed, at domestic level, they see the stepping and the offloading and he’s really got speed. But if you work with him, he’s incredibly physical and competitive and professional. I’d say he is probably our most important player.”

At times it has felt like the spin of a Twister board to decide what number Willemse would wear on his back.

Sometimes at 15 he would look flashy but erratic. Some wanted him at first receiver, but would then complain his tactical kicking wasn’t up to snuff when he shifted forward. The Boks would see value in him at the back and the pointer would keep revolving.

However, last season, Manie Libbok came in to the ten shirt and Warrick Gelant (now at Racing 92) made full-back his own home. Willemse had the chance to thrive at inside-centre, able to make telling touches, good defensive reads and smart kicks without the demands of having to create for everyone else or to be the most pragmatic player on the park either.

There is still the big green question mark to contend with too, though. Seen as an eventual heir to Willie le Roux at 15 for the Springboks, he has stepped in at fly-half recently. There are decisions to be made and impressions to nail. Which is why you’d get it if Willemse focused on Test status at a time when he was hurt for the Stormers and play-offs began.

It’s at that moment Dobson was most impressed, the coach tells Rugby World.

“Before the Test season, Damian was still trying to establish himself in the Springboks team. Willie le Roux is the full-back. So you’d have thought the URC quarter-final is when he would call it quits, because he had what was meant to be a six-week (arm) injury.

Willemse Springboks

Playing against Wales (Getty Images)

“We got him back in two weeks. He was prepared to go into a hyperbaric chamber. He played with a guard. It was four weeks early and the doctor said he couldn’t clear him, so Damian signed an indemnity to say, ‘It’s my decision – I won’t blame you’. If he hurt himself again he wouldn’t hold them responsible.”

This anecdote, Dobson says, isn’t to glory in risking player health but to illustrate Willemse’s love for the team, when he could have easily rested up for the Boks.

The coach adds: “Talk about the DNA of the region, he epitomises it the most. He comes from very humble beginnings in Strand and his style of play is our DNA. He’s had amazing offers from overseas and other South African franchises. Our offer was millions of rand less.”

Here he is. Still in Cape Town. Ready to spin again, whatever the number.

This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in October.

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