Damian Willemse is a local lad from Strand who has made the most of his considerable talents to rise through the ranks to the top of the game.
Willemse’s story is an inspirational tale, which showcases what is possible when the abundant talent in the Western Cape is harnessed correctly.
As one of the ‘kids with the hot step’ growing up in Strand, Willemse came from a sports-mad community and family, but there would be a lot of hard work and sacrifices to see him become a double World Cup winner with 82 DHL Stormers caps at the age of just 25.
He was recognised at Somerset West Methodist Primary by teacher and coach Winston Baard, who played an influential role in Willemse’s early development as the star player for the ‘Methos Squirrels’ as a youngster.
From there it was on to Paul Roos Gimnasium in Stellenbosch, where Willemse’s natural talents were allowed to bloom as he made use of the incredible facilities and sports culture at one of the country’s top rugby schools.
To label Willemse a schoolboy star would be something of an understatement. He had a YouTube reel that made many people sit up and take note, carving defences open with his devastating step and breathtaking handling skills.
He first pulled on the blue and white hoops of DHL Western Province at the 2014 Under-16 Grant Khomo Week and the next year featured at Craven Week as DHL Western Province U18 won the final match against Eastern Province 95-0 on home soil in Stellenbosch.
From school, it was straight into the DHL Stormers set-up as he joined the senior squad for pre-season straight after writing his Matric exams.
He would make his DHL Stormers debut in 2017 at the age of just 18, coming on for the last five minutes against the Southern Kings at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which was enough time for him to step a few players and set up a late try.
Later that year he lifted the Currie Cup, playing in the final in Durban with his brother Ramone Samuels as DHL Western Province claimed a record 34th title.
He made his Springbok debut in 2018 and although not originally named in the squad for the 2019 World Cup, he joined as an injury replacement for Jesse Kriel to play his part in Japan.
In 2022 he featured prominently as the DHL Stormers took the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship title in front of the Faithful at DHL Stadium, having earlier that season become the youngest player ever to 50 DHL Stormers caps.
At the 2023 World Cup in France he was a fixture at fullback as the Springboks made it back-to-back wins, which also saw him become the youngest-ever double World Cup winner.
This list of accolades is testament to his professional approach and incredible work ethic. While the Western Cape is a hotbed of talent, Willemse is a perfect example of what is possible if that talent is nurtured.
In late 2022 he signed a groundbreaking five-year contract extension with Western Province Rugby that will keep him in the blue and white of the DHL Stormers until at least 2027.
A homegrown talent and pride of the Strand and now the rest of the country too, the sky truly is the limit for Willemse.
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