CAPE TOWN – There are not many 20-year-olds that hold the destiny of their teams in their hands, but then again Damian Willemse is not like most 20-year-olds.
Since he togged up for possibly his first rugby game, through his days in the famed maroon jersey of Paul Roos Gymnasium, there has always been expectation on Willemse’s shoulders.
Just as there will be when he runs out against the Lions at Newlands on Saturday, everyone will once more look to him to provide the hope that the Stormers will actually be better this year. On the evidence of last week’s drubbing at Loftus there is not much to be optimistic about. But once again it is Willemse who can potentially change all of this.
t may be unfair to expect a kid barely out of his teens to shoulder such a burden, especially when everything bar the Stormers scrum was an aberration in Pretoria. But that is what separates the good ones from the greats. He will no doubt need a better platform from his forwards, which will allow for snappier service from his inside back.
And that’s possibly where a change to Herschel Jantjies from Jano Vermaak could be beneficial, but either way, when Willemse does get the ball, it is he who needs to take control.
At Loftus, it was Handre Pollard who produced the blueprint for game management. Pollard found space behind the Stormers backline with ranging touchfinders and also delivered a deft little chip to put Jesse Kriel in close to the posts.
In contrast, Willemse did not recognise the space that the Bulls left vacant with their line-speed in defence and also the fact that fullback Warrick Gelant was virtually in the Bulls backline for every Stormers attack.
On Saturday, he will face an entirely different challenge. His opposite number, Elton Jantjies, is nothing like Pollard, but therein lies the test.
For all the reservations about Jantjies in the Springbok jumper at Test match level, he is a meneer in the red and white of the Lions in Super Rugby.
He dictates the pace at which the Lions play, which is usually frenetic. Often it is over-looked, but he is a great organiser who allows for the runners off his shoulders to field that devastating inside pass. Equally, he stretches the defence with cross-field kicks that allows his flying wings to run onto.
Willemse will also need to be alert to when Jantjies attempts to break the line himself.
For all the questions Jantjies is likely to pose, Willemse though cannot forget to play to his own strengths too. At Loftus, he seemed hesitant to play the type of footie he is renowned for.
Willemse is at his best when he attacks the gain line with his twinkle-toed feet, while at the same time he must find a way to get more out of the players alongside him.
It is not going to be an easy task against a Lions team that has amped up their defensive structures, but if Willemse wants to be on the plane to Japan later this year, there is no better opportunity than Saturday to show his worth.