Why Willemse is a good fit for Sarries
SPOTLIGHT: Few teams in Europe will feel as big a World Cup pinch as Saracens are about to experience, as the reigning Premiership champions about to lose more players to the international tournament in Japan than any of their domestic rivals.
The London club currently have eight players in England’s World Cup squad, one with the Springboks and another with Argentina. A further five players could also be set to be confirmed in the Wales, Scotland and United States squads over the coming weeks.
One area in which Saracens could be particularly stretched is in the back three, where Liam Williams and Sean Maitland will both fancy their chances of joining Elliot Daly in Japan. With Owen Farrell also on his way to the World Cup, potentially pushing Alex Goode back into fly-half duties, Saracens’ back three could look quite bare come the beginning of the season.
As stands, it would leave Saracens with the likes of Alex Lewington, Rotimi Segun, Max Malins and Matt Gallagher to start the campaign. Although they are not lacking for talent, the European champions would be left short-handed should they suffer any injuries. To hammer home that point, Malins is currently suffering from a foot injury.
Western Province boss John Dobson raised the possibility of the move ahead of his side’s game against the Free State Cheetahs last weekend, highlighting the positive effect that both Mark McCall and Dan Vickers could have on Willemse’s development in London rather than the player linking up with Edinburgh who was also looking to strike a short-term deal.
Willemse would not be the first player to arrive at Saracens after the early fanfare around their career had died down and their progress had stalled somewhat. Will Skelton initially arrived at Saracens on a short-term loan – before signing a two-year deal with the club – and he then proceeded to hone himself into one of the most effective second rows in European rugby.
Therein lies the beauty of this deal for Saracens. Not only would Willemse serve as some much-needed cover during the Rugby World Cup the move would also act as a trial for a potentially longer-term move in the coming years.
At just 21 years of age, Willemse is only beginning to scratch the surface of what he is capable of in senior rugby and his ability to play both full-back and fly-half to a high level replicates one of the many things that the club prizes so highly in Goode, who turned 31 earlier this year.
The Saracens icon doesn’t look anywhere close to being on the decline yet, but to not have potential succession plans in place for players in their 30s would be irresponsible because that decline does inevitably come sooner or later.
Should the move go ahead, Saracens will get an up-close look at one of the most talented young players in world rugby, who has his best years ahead of him. As for Willemse, it would be a win-win scenario for the five-times capped Springbok, barring any sort of significant injury picked up during the loan spell.
If he goes on to impress, learns and develop his game under the tutelage of McCall and Vickers, as well as the other coaches on staff at the club, he would return to South Africa in a better spot to push forward and challenge for a post-Rugby World Cup berth with the Springboks.
If he impresses so much as to warrant a long-term contract offer from the club next summer, the Paul Roos Gymnasium product opens up a multitude of doors as to how he wants to progress with his rugby career. Coaches aside, he would also get the opportunity to learn from and develop alongside Goode, and there are far worse mentors and role models to have than the veteran full-back.
Like Goode, Willemse has an array of passes off both hands that allow him to run a backline from the first receiver or carve open a team beyond the gain line. He has a big boot on him, just like the Englishman, bringing that skill set of a kicking fly-half to the full-back position, as well as an adept eye for a gap.
Willemse is a little more direct than Goode, backing his speed as opposed to Goode’s tendency to run laterally more often, attempting to draw defenders or create space, but the similarities far outweigh their differences.
There are plenty of calls for Malins and Manu Vunipola to see more playing time and many Saracens fans will be hoping that the World Cup provides them with exactly that opportunity at the club already accustomed to having a depth of squad and rotating players to keep them fresh throughout an entire season.
If Vunipola is the understudy to Goode at 10 over the next couple of months, having Willemse to rival Malins at 15 is no bad move. The Saracens culture and environment have become one of unrivalled player development in English rugby and to potentially see a player of Willemse’s talent take on that challenge and attempt to reach his potential, is an exciting one for all neutral rugby fans.
If you’re a fan of one of the other 11 Premiership clubs, though, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. The rich could be about to get even richer.
By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass