Springboks barometer: Fullback stocks strong but Damian Willemse a shoo-in

Damian Willemse of the Stormers during the 2023 United Rugby Championship game between the Stormers and Sharks at Cape Town Stadium

Damian Willemse, the World Cup winner has been juggling responsibilities at the Stormers, shifting between fullback and inside centre. Picture: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Published Jan 30, 2024


South African teams have been flexing their muscles in the European club rugby tournaments so far, and for the Springboks, that can only be a good sign ahead of the demanding 2024 season after their World Cup triumph, with Tests against Ireland and Portugal in June, and the Rugby Championship later this year.

Starting at fullback, Independent Newspapers will, over the next few weeks, look at the options at Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus’ disposal for the looming international season, where they will look to maintain the No 1 spot in the world.

The incumbent: Damian Willemse

The World Cup winner has been juggling responsibilities at the Stormers, shifting between fullback and inside centre where he has been solid as well. But for the national team, his best position is at fullback, and that is where he should be staying.

Since returning from the World Cup, he has injected a new dimension into the Stormers’ attack and brought that edge that only he can whether he is playing as the No 15 or No 12.

Willemse has been solid under the high ball. His reading and positional play against tough opponents like the Bulls, Sharks, and Sale Sharks was exceptional. And, of course, he brings that extra kicking option at the back when he is not running the ball back at his opponents.

There is no doubt that Willemse should be the man in the saddle for the Boks against the likes of Ireland and the All Blacks later this year.

The contenders: Willie le Roux, Aphelele Fassi, Quan Horn

“There’s life within the old dog yet” is a saying that rings true when it comes to Le Roux. He’s injected a breath of fresh air into the Bulls’ attack, and still plays with that smile on his face. For as long as he does this at a high level, the Boks should not have to worry about a backup to Willemse.

Yes, Le Roux is reaching a ripe age, but he still harbours ambitions to get to a century of Bok caps, and he is so close. Breathing down his neck for a Bok return is the exciting Fassi, who has been going from strength to strength at the Sharks since signing a contract extension.

Fassi almost left Durban, but he has since established himself as the premier fullback at the Sharks.

He is repaying the faith of the coaches with some solid games in a struggling United Rugby Championship side.

He is only 26 years old and can still go on for years, but consistency towards the end of the season will be the name of the game for the Dale College old boy.

Consistency under the high ball, consistency on the attack, consistency with his huge left boot, and consistency on defence – something he has improved exponentially since his Bok debut in 2021.

No fear

He is not afraid to stick his head into contact with tackles and at the breakdown, and when there is no space to run into on the attack, he does not shy away from running at defenders. Another youngster knocking on the door is the Lions’ Horn, but the Bok jersey might just be out of reach this season.

The 22-year-old has shown great potential, and just like the other contenders, he is equally adept on the attack and defence. He’s done excellently since taking over the Lions’ fullback jersey and can be an attacking menace when he gets into space.

One of his biggest assets is his left boot, which constantly relieves pressure on the Lions from their half. If the Boks want to take a gamble and bring in fresh blood ahead of the 2027 World Cup in Australia, Horn won’t be a bad pick to get a run against Portugal in the one-off test.

Although he still needs more playing minutes at franchise level, exposing him to the Bok environment early enough can go a long way in getting him ready for what awaits at Test level.