Damian Willemse’s ground-breaking contract extension with Western Province Rugby is an investment in greatness that’s bound to pay off big, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The multi-talented Springbok star recently signed a five-year extension with Western Province Rugby that will keep him at the Stormers until at least 2027. Rapport on Sunday reported he also reached an agreement with international glass packaging giants Ardagh and that the combined deal will see him earn more than R10 million a year.
It’s an absurd amount of money, with only Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth believed to have contracts in a similar ballpark as far as South African-based players are concerned. The key difference is that where the Sharks duo are decorated Springbok icons in the final third of their careers, Willemse’s a 24-year-old with the world at his feet.
Extraordinarily gifted, he has size, speed, vision, fantastic footwork and stellar distribution skills. He’s a playmaker, a game-changer and a match-winner. He’s an ever-evolving triple threat, a dynamic coach’s dream who offers exceptional value with his ability to play fullback, flyhalf and inside centre.
The virtuoso’s contract is a celebration of a special talent, a life-changing rubberstamp that dedication and perseverance pay off and a promise of big to come. In signing the deal, Willemse’s become the face of the Cape franchise. With that comes more responsibilities, expectations and pressure.
Nothing in rugby is guaranteed, but Willemse’s track record indicates that he’ll continue to blossom to the point where he becomes one of the greats. He’s evolved from a schoolboy prodigy at Paul Roos, where his electrifying skills went viral and earmarked him for a green and gold future, into what John Dobson hailed the “ultimate professional.”
“We have always known the potential of a player like Damian who has all the talent in the world. To have seen him develop over the last five years into the ultimate professional has been a privilege, and we are so glad that he has chosen to remain loyal to the only team he has ever played for,” the Stormers coach said when Willemse’s contract extension was announced.
A fresh-faced Willemse made his Stormers debut at just 18 years of age in 2017 and became the ninth-youngest Springbok in the professional era when he came off the bench in the 34-21 win over Argentina in Durban at 20 years and 103 days in 2018.
He has a World Cup winner’s medal to his name, having been called up to the South African squad as an injury replacement for Jesse Kriel and scoring a try against Canada in the 2019 showpiece in Japan and already boasts 23 Test caps.
No player is immune to adversity and Willemse’s inevitable slump was worsened by Rapport revealing last May that Western Province Rugby had reportedly bumped up his salary to R5 million a year to beat an offer from the union’s arch-rivals the Bulls.
At the time, an embattled Willemse looked far from worth the hefty salary. He’d struggled with injuries and inconsistency and was unable to take the reins as the franchise flyhalf Dobson had hoped he’d turn into, however, he’s silenced his critics since.
Reverting to fullback got him back on track but it was his move into the midfield that proved to be the masterstroke that took him to the next level as he grew into a central figure of the Stormers’ United Rugby Championship triumph.
Confident, consistently sublime and crucially, playing with newfound maturity, this year has been Willemse’s coming of age, starting with his starring role at the Stormers and continuing with his new role as a Springbok starter.
When Willemse eventually hangs up his boots, his heroics in the 32-29 season-opening win over Wales in Pretoria will be remembered as a career-defining performance.
Circumstances in the national set-up led to his selection at fullback and he didn’t skip a beat. He grew in stature as a nightmare unfolded that saw the world champions trail 18-3 at halftime.
With Elton Jantjies having an absolute howler, an audible had to be called and the Springboks put their unbeaten record against the Dragons on home soil in Willemse’s hands, who steered them to a great escape.
That day at a sold-out Loftus Versfeld highlighted everything that makes Willemse special – his versatility, attacking potency (he beat six defenders and made two clean breaks to rack up an unrivalled 127 metres in 12 carries), sound decision-making and composure as he slotted two touchline conversions and the last-gasp match-winning penalty goal.
He’s brought an attacking edge to the Springbok backline in the No 10 jersey amidst the current flyhalf crisis and will arguably be South Africa’s most important player on their upcoming end-of-year tour.
It’s not just his undeniable skills that earned Willemse his mega-money contract. His character played just as big a part. Humble, hard-working and level-headed, he trades drama for drive and is the ultimate team man.
Barring injury, he’ll be a key figure in the Springbok set-up for the next decade, during which he’ll become a centurion and possibly captain his country.
SA Rugby owes Western Province Rugby and Ardagh a debt of gratitude for ensuring he spends at least half of that time in South Africa as the Springboks stand to benefit just about as much from the deal as the Stormers.