Rushing young flyhalves is not clever
Robert du Preez must wonder where all the time has disappeared to.
I am not referring to Robert du Preez senior, who is currently coaching the Sharks, but to his son, who wore the No 10 jersey for the Stormers in their two most recent Vodacom Super Rugby matches against the Southern Kings and Sunwolves respectively.
Why Du Preez must be wondering where the time is gone is because although he only made his Stormers debut at the end of the 2015 Super Rugby season on a day when the Cape side went to Durban under-strength and he filled the fullback position, he’s suddenly being seen as a senior player in his team.
That at the age of just 23 and after picking up eight caps for the Stormers in Super Rugby. It will be recalled that while Du Preez started the 2016 Super Rugby season as the first choice flyhalf, he missed much of the rest of the schedule through injury.
The reason that Du Preez is suddenly a senior player is because of the men who stand outside him. Dan Kriel is a talented youngster but although the same age as Du Preez, he is less experienced in Super Rugby terms than Du Preez.
The alternative inside centre in the absence of Damian de Allende, Dan du Plessis, is even younger and less experienced than Kriel is.
The outside centre is EW Viljoen. What a revelation the former national age-group star has been for the Stormers so far this season. He did make his Currie Cup debut at fullback, where he played some of his schoolboy rugby, while still a teenager, but injuries have kept him from the field and most of his rugby before this year was at age-group level. He is currently only 21.
When you look at the experience in the rest of the backline that featured against the Sunwolves, it would probably be correct to say that there hardly was any.
Not in relation to the past, where there were settled combinations such as Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jong or De Villiers and Jaque Fourie who had played many years of Super Rugby and were heading into their late 20s and beyond that.
But the phenomenon of the average age of Super Rugby players becoming younger and younger is not just limited to the Cape.
I was MC at a function recently where Sharks stalwart Keegan Daniel was a guest. He made the point that when he made his Super Rugby debut just over 10 years ago at the age of 22, he was considered exceptionally young.
Now that age is almost not considered young any more, and players of Daniel’s current age, 32, have become a rarity.
Which takes me back to Du Preez. The current Stormers flyhalf must wonder what time machine he stepped into when he hears and reads people calling for Damian Willemse to be selected as the young blood starting option.
Make no mistake, I also rate last year’s South African Schools flyhalf highly. To my mind, he is undeniably the flyhalf future for the Stormers, but he is only a couple of months out of high school.
The importance of managing young players, and flyhalves in particular, was well underlined after the Sharks’ win over the Cheetahs by the other Robert du Preez, the one that was born in 1963 and is now earning a living as a coach.
Du Preez reckons 19-year-old Curwin Bosch is now ready to play pivot after gaining experience there by first coming on as a replacement for Patrick Lambie against the Waratahs and then playing well against the Cheetahs.
He also made the point though that flyhalf is a position that is high pressured because of the calls and decisions that have to be made.
Du Preez made it clear that it was a desire to let Bosch settle without having to deal with the extra pressure of playing flyhalf that saw Bosch play mostly fullback when he did play for the Sharks in 2016.
That was Bosch’s first year out of school so he was eased in rather than rushed. He only made his Super Rugby debut in the last weeks of the competition.
He will probably tell you now that he appreciated being managed as he was. It is now Willemse’s first year out of school, and he is being managed in the same fashion – he is a fullback back-up who has been introduced to Super Rugby off the bench.
There have been many young flyhalves who have had their careers ruined by being pushed too quickly. Handre Pollard may be one that hasn't happened to, but if you recall the way he had to adjust his natural game to suit the Springbok game-plan at the 2015 World Cup, you might be able to argue that even he has had his natural development as a player stunted a little by being pushed early.
With Du Preez and Jean-Luc du Preez available to the Stormers, there is no point risking putting Willemse’s career back by throwing him in at the deep end.
The Bosch experience should not be used as an example of why Willemse should be selected to play flyhalf right now.
Quite the converse. The young Sharks player has benefitted from proper management and being eased in without burdening him with too much pressure.