Damian Willemse during the British and Irish Lions rugby team captains run at Cape Town Stadium on July 23 2021 in Cape Town. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ASHLEY VLOTMAN
Damian Willemse during the British and Irish Lions rugby team captains run at Cape Town Stadium on July 23 2021 in Cape Town. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ASHLEY VLOTMAN

He has occasionally taken centre stage but mostly he’s had to pivot to meet the whims of the coaches he has played under. Welcome to the Peter Pan existence of Damian Willemse, who is not ready to drop anchor in a particular position. He is equally loath to nail his colours to the mast.

“Our [individual] goals are never higher than that of the Springboks‚” Willemse said on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s Test against The British and Irish Lions. “I’m happy to be helping wherever I can for the team and where the coach needs me. I’m lucky to be performing all those roles. I’m actually enjoying it.”

Willemse may still be a backline floater but he understands the gravity of his role in the must-win second Test in the series of three. The Springboks’ Bomb Squad has been reassembled, which means a jack of all trades backline substitute is required to cover nearly all eventualities.

The 23-year-old argues that he has been in the Bok set-up long enough to take on a multilayered job. “I’ve been in the system for a few years now‚” Willemse said. “I know the structures. I have been playing 15‚ 10‚ not so much 12. Because I’m familiar with the way we do things‚ as well as having someone like Damian de Allende to learn from‚ helps me a lot.

“The coaches have been clear with the plans for me now that I’m covering 10‚ 12 and 15‚” he added. “Playing 12 is not all that different to 10. It’s about being in the front line and chasing kicks‚ but I have played Currie Cup and club rugby at 12‚ so it hasn’t been too much of a change. I feel fortunate to be able to fulfil different roles and I’m really enjoying it.”

Willemse does not know where he will be deployed. How the game unfolds will most likely dictate that. “We will have to see between myself and Willie [le Roux] who goes where. We’ll have to see if there is an early injury or a tactical movement.”

Though he is filling the void left by Frans Steyn‚ Willemse is often compared to Brent Russell who came off the bench 15 times in his 23 Tests between 2002 and 2006. Willemse, though, still has time to convince that he can attach himself to a number on the Bok jersey.

For a player endowed with his off-the-cuff wizardry to find his voice in a team that stick to the hymn sheet as fastidiously as the Springboks‚ is easier said than done. The Boks’ suffocating game plan does‚ however‚ have spinoffs for players of Willemse’s ilk‚ albeit deep into the game.

“The coaches backing me are really important. Them giving me the freedom and licence to go out. It’s important for me to grab my opportunities and play with everything I have for my country‚” Willemse said.

Should he be required to hold the fort at flyhalf‚ he will draw a lot of attention‚ and not just from the vast television audience‚ but from the Lions too. He can be as direct as the hard-running Handré Pollard‚ but he also has the ability to sidestep a rhino in a phone booth.

It is perhaps his goal-kicking that will invite the most interest should he be handed the kicking tee. It is an area in which he has sought improvement and it is a theme that would have resonated throughout the squad this week as the Boks look to avoid a series defeat.

“All these guys are professionals‚” Willemse said. “We have been in this position a few times. One thing I can guarantee is that we won’t sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. We have a lot to play for. We have everything to play for.”


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