Dynamic Damian Makes His Mark

DHL Stormers dynamo Damian Willemse dragged a heavy question mark into the start of the United Rugby Championship, but he sprints into the Cape Town final behind a giant exclamation point.

Willemse was consigned to the scrapheap of public opinion by many who rode the highs and resented the lows of a career that, for the first five seasons, saw the talented playmaker trapped on a merry-go-round.

But when circumstances conspired to shift Willemse to the midfield, it proved to be a move that bolstered the DHL Stormers’ blueprint and laid the foundation for a run at the title.

‘Damian is a complete player but he’s really found his feet at inside centre,’ DHL Stormers coach John Dobson told the URC.

Dazzling feet is the reason Willemse’s reputation preceded his arrival in the professional ranks. A gamebreaker with the agility to slice the defensive line and the speed to dice the cross defence, the SA Schools and Junior Springbok made his DHL Stormers debut in 2017.

‘He’s much more than just a hot-stepper,’ added Dobson.

Indeed, Willemse complemented his hot stepping with stone-cold tackling that wowed spectators. But these highlights were sullied by low points as the livewire attempted to dig himself out of a hole.

The transition to the senior game was not following the script of Paul Roos prodigy to professional superstar, and with every minute that Willemse failed to live up to the expectation, the frustration grew.

‘I’m aware he made one or two mistakes on the rugby field in his early 20s, but I’ve never understood the vitriol directed at him,’ said Dobson.

He made 11 appearances at flyhalf for the 2018 DHL Stormers but ended that year starting at fullback in a 12-11 Springbok defeat at Twickenham.

The following season, motivated by Willemse’s place in the national coaches’ plans, the DHL Stormers backed him to start 11 matches at the back. He was serviceable but erratic at No 15 and it was clear he needed to be closer to the action.

Willemse returned to flyhalf in 2020 – a season blighted by the challenges of global lockdown measures while he and his teammates were caught in the crossfire of boardroom infighting at the union – but again reversed to fullback last year.

Everything changed in September when Manie Libbok followed former Vodacom Bulls teammate Warrick Gelant to Cape Town.

With Gelant firing at fullback, all it took was for Libbok to settle in at flyhalf and the door to the midfield opened for Willemse.

The DHL Stormers won three of their first eight matches, but with the 24-year-old lined up at inside centre the SA Shield champs won seven of eight matches.

‘Other than his obvious stepping and ball skills, which are world-class, we get enormous value from Damian at 12 where, if you have a decent right-footer there, it gives you a lot more options to test the opposition backfield,’ said Dobson.

‘He’s also a really good communicator which helps the flyhalf, he’s another set of eyes for Manie.
He has a massive work rate – he just works incredibly hard and leads the GPS stats wherever he plays – and then there’s the physicality – he’s a big guy, carries well, defends well and cleans really well.

‘You can see how important every contest is to him, he tries to win every single battle he gets involved in.’

The DHL Stormers expect nothing less than all-out war when they square up against the Vodacom Bulls at DHL Stadium on Saturday night, and with Willemse in the middle of it they have an all-action hero itching to pull the trigger.

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