Cape Town – With Robert du Preez having left for the Sharks at the end of the 2017 season, depth at flyhalf was a major concern for the Stormers going into Super Rugby 2018.
Much of that concern stemmed from the fact that Jean-Luc du Plessis was in the middle of an injury battle that would end up lasting around 15 months.
With Du Preez gone and Du Plessis injured, 19-year-old Damian Willemse was thrown into the deep end as coach Robbie Fleck’s first-choice No 10.
The performances that followed made Willemse one of the shining lights for the Stormers this season, but there is no doubt that Fleck could have done with another more experienced option in the position at times.
Unfortunately for him, options were minimal.
It’s been a journey that has seen the 24-year-old Du Plessis start and stop his rehabilitation more than once, and it included a Hail Mary trip to the United States to seek specialist advice towards the end of last year.
What was initially thought to be a groin injury all the way back in March 2017 evolved into a strain on the pubic bone and then a hip problem before Du Plessis went under the knife. After that first hip surgery, though, the pubic bone problem persisted.
In December 2017, Du Plessis visited American doctor Bill Meyers, were he had further surgery before returning home.
After months of more rehabilitation, he eventually made his comeback in a friendly against Griquas in March only to crack a rib on his return as his woeful luck continued.
Now, finally, the left-footed playmaker is back to full fitness and although he only has two Super Rugby matches under his belt this season, his return came at a critical time.
Willemse was injured while on Junior Springbok duty in France at the U20 World Championship, and his unavailability coincided with Du Plessis’ return in a rare bit of good fortune on the Stormers injury front this season.
Du Plessis acknowledges that he is not at 100% just yet, but he is getting stronger with every game and is now eyeing this year’s Currie Cup as an opportunity to enjoy an extended run of games and hopefully marshal the Western Province troops through a more successful tournament.
“It’ll take a while to get that match fitness and that rhythm again,” Du Plessis said from the Stormers’ Bellville training complex on Wednesday.
“I’m getting there.”
On Saturday, he will line up against former team-mate and his previous competition for the Stormers No 10 jersey, Du Preez. It is a battle that will be intriguing.
While Du Plessis has been helpless in these troubled Stormers times, Du Preez has thrived at the Sharks this season and capped off that success with a Springbok cap against Wales in June.
“I’m looking forward to it. Robert and I are good mates off the field,” Du Plessis said.
“We know each other quite well and I’m sure it will be one of the battles that will be important to the result.”
Despite making his Bok debut, Du Preez is still quite far down in the Springbok pecking order.
Handre Pollard is Rassie Erasmus’ first-choice playmaker while Elton Jantjies started the 3rd Test against England at Newlands. Willemse, meanwhile, looks to be a part of the plans for the upcoming Rugby Championship in August.
“The flyhalf stocks are in a better place than they were maybe two years ago. A lot of guys have come through quite nicely now and have been getting opportunities,” said Du Plessis, adding that he been particularly impressed with Willemse.
“Damian has played immensely well considering his age.
“Guys like Dewaldt Duvenage and Damian de Allende around him definitely helped, but I think for a 19-year-old having started all of the games this season and having performed well … hats off to him.
“I’m sure he’s chomping at the bit to get back for the Currie Cup. It’ll be good for Province and there will be some good competition to flyhalf.”
He may be a long way away from his own Springbok chance right now, but Du Plessis is at least back on the field. After everything he has been through over the last 18 months, that is the most important thing.
Saturday’s match against the Sharks kicks off at 17:15.