Two weeks before he became the youngest man in history to win two Rugby World Cups, Damian Willemse became a meme. Rather, his hands became a meme. On the same ground where he’d use those hands to offload three times and carry for 65 metres – both match-highs – against New Zealand in the final, he clenched them into fists and held them together.
It was already the most thrilling half of the World Cup. Perhaps it was the greatest exhibition of rugby in the sport’s 152-year history. Under the lights in Paris, France and South Africa had each scored three tries. Cheslin Kolbe charged down a conversion. Jonathan Danty was running through walls. Jesse Kriel, Charles Ollivon and a handful of others were having the game of their lives.
Amidst the chaos of a breathless quarter-final, Willemse fielded a long kick from Louis Bielle-Biarrey inside his own 22, called a mark, placed the ball on the turf and put his fists together. Upending convention, South Africa’s full-back opted for a scrum.
Could he do that? Many watching on, including a few seasoned journalists high up in the press box, weren’t sure. Why would he do that? No-one ever turns down the option of hoofing the ball back upfield and away from danger. A minute later South Africa’s pack won a scrum penalty and a game filled with iconic moments had one to top them all.
Now, whenever Willemse walks to streets of Cape Town where he lives and plays his club rugby with the Stormers, strangers will call his name and hold their fists together.
“Moving around South Africa is not what it used to be,” Willemse says, laughing as he gives an account of the endless selfies and handshakes he has offered since the Springboks’ triumph last October. “World Cup fever is still very much alive. You can see that what we achieved still means so much to everyone.
“I never expected to become a meme. It [the decision to call a scrum from a mark] was something the coaches came up with and I just went for it in the moment. Luckily it came off. That’s something that I’m sure will be spoken about for a long time. I’m just grateful I could do something that made so many people happy. I owe a lot of gratitude in my life.”
He was offered several million more than we could at the time but he turned it down. How many teenagers would do that?
Born and raised in Strand to the southeast of Cape Town’s city centre, a part of the country he calls “a tough community with a lot of problems”, Willemse, like several of his Springbok team-mates, saw rugby as an escape from hardship.
A talented athlete, he was offered a full scholarship to the prestigious Paul Roos Gymnasium in nearby Stellenbosch. Named after the first ever Springboks captain, the school has produced more South African Test rugby players than any other in the country. Among the notable alumni are Schalk Brits, Willie le Roux, Steven Kitshoff and Herschel Jantjies.
His education was fully funded by the Rupert family with an estimated net worth of around £8 billion. And when the family’s eldest son, Johan, became the joint-majority shareholder of the Blue Bulls franchise around the time Willemse graduated from high school, it was assumed he’d show his appreciation and make the move north to Pretoria.
“What Damian did, by showing his loyalty to Western Province and the Stormers, that to me is an example of his immense spirit,” says John Dobson, Willemse’s club coach who gave him his senior debut for this province as an 18-year-old in 2017.
“He was offered several million rand more than we could at the time but he turned it down. Because he’d grown up here. Because it meant more to him to represent the people of Strand and the people of the Cape. The easier thing would have been to go and take the big bucks. How many teenagers would do that?”
Willemse picks up the story: “I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision but in my mind I was never really going to go. The blue and white, playing for Dobbo, for the club, I couldn’t leave. When the Bulls showed interest Western Province weren’t in good shape and I could have gone and probably won a few trophies early on. But I thought about the legacy I wanted to leave for myself. I grew up here. My heart was always in Cape Town.”
Representation is a theme espoused by Willemse and Dobson. Both player and coach are self-identifying history geeks and will often hold private conversations about subjects such as the Battle of Midway or Ancient Greece. Dobson famously uses historical narratives in his team-talks, evoking the struggles of the mythological Sisyphus or World War II fighter pilots to drive home his message.
Some players, Dobson admits, meet him with glazed eyes. Not Willemse. From their very first meeting they found in each other a kindred soul.
“When he first made the team we went up to Kimberley to play a Currie Cup match,” Dobson recalls. “I took the guys to the Big Hole [an open-pit diamond mine with a claim to being the deepest anywhere in the world to have been excavated by hand]. Damian was the only guy who paid extra to go down and see where the miners worked and take in the museum.
“He was 18 years old at the time. But he was invested in the stories of the people who built South Africa and of the people who were exploited to make others wealthy. He had this natural empathy and curiosity that he still has today. At the time he was also reading a 300-page biography on Adolf Hitler. He really is a remarkable guy.”
“I wore the jersey for six days,” he says with a self-effacing laugh. “I thought, ‘Okay, now things are starting to get unhygienic’.
Perhaps it was his curious mind which meant he couldn’t settle on a single position. Was he a fly-half? An inside centre? A full-back? He played in the 2017 U20 World Cup with 12 on his back and replaced Andre Esterhuizen in midfield when he made his Springboks debut a year later. A few months after that he was starting at 15 against England. When Handre Pollard was injured for the 2022 Autumn Nations Series, Willemse stepped into the vacant number 10 jersey.
But being a jack of all trades has hampered the careers of Springboks before. Brent Russell, Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Pat Lambie are just a handful who might have won more caps if they’d had an extended run in a single role. As a history buff, does Willemse pay any heed to these cautionary tales?
“To be honest, I’m not bothered where I play,” he says with the flat bat all media-trained athletes carry. “But I do think 15 is my preferred position now. I’ve probably now played there more than anywhere else at this point. I train every position in practice. I stand at 10 and 12 so if there’s an injury I can slot in without a problem. It does mean I train less at 15 than maybe other Test full-backs, but I’m comfortable enough to do my job.”
That’s because he not only pores over writings on European dictators and 20th century combat but his own notes he scribbles during every team practice. “You’d be amazed,” Dobson says. “He’s got his little notebook at every session. Everything that’s put on the board he’s writing down, taking notes, taking it all in.
“He’s perfect,” Dobson continues. “If there’s a team social, he’s the one organising it. If there’s a sponsor’s event, he’s there and encouraging others to join. He knows his details. He’s just a phenomenal professional but he’s also such a vibe.”
That last part was evident following the World Cup win. Willemse, still wearing the bottle green jersey he was in when the final whistle sounded in Paris, was front and centre of almost every photo and video of his team’s triumph across the country. Sporting dark glasses and his winner’s medal, he was leading the celebrations with an ever-present smile, dancing under the spray of champagne on stages and open-top buses for five continuous days. It was only when the party went to Cape Town he cleaned up.
“I wore the jersey for six days,” he says with a self-effacing laugh. “I thought, ‘Okay, now things are starting to get unhygienic’. But I wanted to get myself together. A lot of people were coming to see us from Strand and Stellenbosch, a lot of my friends and family and people who knew me in the community. I wanted to make sure I was present. I stopped drinking that morning. I wanted to be presentable. I wanted to make sure my people knew how much I appreciated them.”
We’ve considered playing him on the wing at times. But there’s definitely room for improvement which is actually quite frightening.
Willemse will be 26 in May which means he has the chance to win a third World Cup before his 30th birthday, yet Dobson believes he can get even better. “He’s still lacking that strike force from deep, that real x-factor. Everything else is faultless. Under the high ball, stepping up at first receiver, on defence. He’s solid. But his stepping is a little too lateral right now. He beats guys with ease but can’t exploit that space. It’s not because he’s not quick. We’ve considered playing him on the wing at times. But there’s definitely room for improvement which is actually quite frightening.”
With 40 appearances for his country and the 15 jersey seemingly in his grasp, Willemse could end his career as a generational superstar of over 100 caps. Not that he’ll get drawn into a conversation about hypotheticals.
“That’s all a long way off,” he says. “I’m not really a goals person. I do have ambitions but I try to keep them within sight. I want to win a Champions Cup and a URC title with Stormers. I believe we have the squad to do that. We’ve got the Rugby Championship with the Boks and then Ireland come to South Africa [in July] which will be epic. One day it would be cool to win world player of the year, but those things take care of themselves. If I play well, the rewards will happen on their own.”