Multi-skilled Damian Willemse made a major statement in the Springboks’ come-from-behind win over Wales in Pretoria on Saturday’s Rugby match, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Trailing 18-3 at halftime, the men in green and gold staged a second-half fightback to snatch a 32-29 victory in front of a 51,000-strong crowd at Loftus Versfeld.
Here are our top three Springbok standouts:
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The icy cool match-winning penalty goal in injury time was one thing. Glorious for the stuttering Springboks and devastating for the Dragons, who punched above their weight so commendably to nearly rewrite the history books.
The impact of the bomb squad was another. However, from the first minute to the last, a peak-pressure 82-minute rugby rollercoaster in which he was asked to play not one but two positions he hadn’t played at franchise level all year, nor kick at goal, Willemse stepped up and up and up to pull South Africa out of the fire.
There’d been talk all week of the 24-year-old being the new Frans Steyn, the world champions’ Mr. Do It All – a dynamic insurance policy – and boy, did he live up to that billing in this great escape. The Paarl Roos prodigy’s always been a confidence-driven player and the self-belief and momentum he gained as a central figure in the Stormers’ United Rugby Championship triumph shone through in the season-opener.
Having finally found his best position – inside centre – circumstances in the national set-up led to his selection at No.15 and he didn’t skip a beat. He was the hosts’ main strike runner, beating six defenders and making two clean breaks to rack up an unrivalled 127 metres in 12 carries and his decision-making was top-class, a classy rolling touch-finder highlighting his game-management acumen.
His true value came to the fore when he shifted to flyhalf at the start of the second half in place of Elton Jantjies, who had an absolute mare. His confidence steadied the ship and his temperament off the tee, slotting two touchline conversions and the last-gasp penalty goal proved decisive.
Another player who proved a point. Many, or to be completely honest, most South African supporters were less than pleased with Wiese’s selection at No.8 after Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw took the URC by storm and forced their way into the Springbok squad. Few local fans saw Wiese’s heroics for English Premiership winners Leicester Tigers, which included a try-scoring Man of the Match performance against Saracens in the final.
The 26-year-old gave his doubters ammunition during a nervous start, first by dropping a high ball and then conceding a penalty for a no-arms tackle. From there, however, he went from strength to strength. Domineering with ball in hand, he exploded over the gain line time and time again. He made a whopping 20 carries, more than double that of any other Springbok forward, and beat six defenders for 57 metres.
Less notable but equally important was the prominent role he played on defence, making 10 tackles, second only to…
Lood de Jager
Both halves of the engine room brought it. Eben Etzebeth, as the senior player in the team, took it upon himself to inspire his underwhelming brethren. Strong carries and industrious defence (10 tackles) tied everything together, but three key plays highlighted his value as a 98-Test veteran.
The first was a lineout steal in the eighth minute, which woke up the stunned crowd after Louis Rees-Zammit’s try, the second was when he charged down Kieran Hardy’s kick from the base in the visitors’ 22 and the third was a turnover he won that sparked the Springboks’ first try-scoring opportunity at the end of the first half.
De Jager, however, stood even taller with an all-action display any loose forward would be proud of, let alone a lock. The mobile skyscraper popped up everywhere, initiating go-forward ball with both powerful carries and impressive offloads, and set off on a galloping breakaway. All in all, he made 45 metres and beat two defenders in nine carries.
The 29-year-old doubled up on defence, making a team-high 12 tackles in a tireless display on top of solid set-piece work as the go-to man in the lineouts (seven takes).