Cape Town — Damian Willemse showed real guts to step up and take a shot at goal from a penalty against France last week.
The Springboks were leading by just a point at 23-22, and they had lost first-choice goal-kicker on the day, Cheslin Kolbe, to concussion following the dangerous challenge on him by French captain Antoine Dupont early in the second half.
Then back-up kicker Faf de Klerk — who had slotted a superb touchline conversion and a crucial penalty — was replaced by Cobus Reinach around the hour mark.
That left Willemse as the next-in-line, and the situation was tough. He had missed a penalty in the loss to Ireland a week earlier, and had also made a couple of errors with other kicks from hand in Dublin.
There were calls for him to be either dropped or moved to fullback, so that Manie Libbok could make his Test debut in the No 10 jersey in Marseille.
But the Bok management stuck by their man, and Willemse rewarded that faith by booting over that vital three-pointer from over 50 metres out — and 15 metres from the touchline — to extend the lead to 26-22.
It looked like the South Africans would pull off a sensational victory despite the 12th-minute red card to Pieter-Steph du Toit, but it was not to be as Deon Fourie got a yellow card with 10 minutes left, and Les Bleus closed things out for a 30-26 triumph.
But while Willemse was much improved from his performance against Ireland, it was evident that he almost played like an inside centre at the Stade Velodrome. He seldom sparked the backline with long passes or cross-kicks on attack — even though the visitors had adopted an attacking, ball-in-hand mindset to get around France’s strong kicking game.
Instead, it was fullback Willie le Roux who was doing most of the playmaking. Every now and then the No 15 would come in at first receiver and look to make the ‘big play’, either with a cut-out pass to the wider channels, a chip or grubber kick, and just some variety to unlock the French defence.
Willemse, in contrast, was much more direct. He often took on the home side himself with ball-in-hand, stepping and jinking this way and that, and it brought an extra bow to the Boks’ quiver.
But it should be Willemse — and not Le Roux — who should be running the Bok show. If he is to become a serious flyhalf option for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, he needs to be the general, calling the shots and pulling the strings with his hands, pace, and boot.
He has all the skills to do just that, so why not back him to do so? Bok coach Jacques Nienaber was clear before the tour that Willemse was the first-choice No 10 in the absence of Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies, so he needs to be given that kind of responsibility in Saturday’s Test against Italy in Genoa (3pm kick-off) — where he will go head-to-head with the Azzurri’s talented No 10 Tommaso Allan, the son of former Bok and Scotland hooker John.
Doing so would make the Boks much more dangerous, as it would ensure that Le Roux is able to provide an extra option out wide by coming into the line from the back, and thereby also helping to bring wings Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse more often into the action.
Willemse has the temperament to handle the pressure — which he showed with that penalty in Marseille — so he must steer the Boks around the Stadio Luigi Ferraris pitch on Saturday afternoon …