South Africa's Damian Willemse heads into the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand hailed as ‘one of the players of our generation'.
That is the verdict of Harlequins full-back Tyrone Green who played with Willemse from the age of 13 and was in the same South Africa U20’s side where the Springbok No15 played fly-half.
Willemse was in the 2019 World Cup winning South Africa squad but didn’t play in the final against England in Yokohama. Four years on, he is a key attacking weapon for the defending champions.
Green told TRU: "Damian’s a great player, he’s probably one of the players of our generation in world rugby at the moment along with Marcus Smith (his Quins teammate) and Romain Ntamack (France). I think in that age group, we've got a few great players coming through.
"Damian has been one of the best players in our age group since we were 13 or 14 years old and we always knew he was going to make it to the top. He was part of the 2019 World Cup squad and going for a second World Cup winners’ medal at just 25 is a big achievement."
The most experienced #Springboks team ever will line up for the #RWC2023 Final against New Zealand in Paris on Saturday - more here: https://t.co/oySTFCRVOo ????#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/JEeGNVyjI1— Springboks (@Springboks) October 26, 2023
Green will be watching Saturday's World Cup final but before he sits down to cheer on the Boks, he will be aiming to help Quins defeat second-placed Bristol Bears in the Gallagher Premiership at Ashton Gate.
Green has become a fan favourite at the club since arriving from South Africa with his pace and footwork making him a real threat in their back line.
Green, like Springbok wings Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse, is proving smaller players can still make a major impact in the sport if they have outstanding individual skills.
Green added: "I think the quality of players in the Springbok backline is unbelievable. Arendse and Kolbe are really on another level and their footwork and speed is probably the best in the world.
"When they get the ball, you always know something big is going to happen. It's always exciting and of course, their speed is on another level. It's really, really quick and hard to defend against. Like Kolbe’s try in the 2019 World Cup final, you always know when they get the ball, they can switch things up and change the whole perception of the playing style."
Kolbe will be up against the tournament's top try-scorer in Will Jordan (8) on Saturday night in Paris, just one of the many battles around the park to keep an eye on.
The Springboks have opted for a 7-1 split on the bench with just one back in their replacements with no recognised scrum-half. It worked for the Springboks when they dismantled the All Blacks in the pre-World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham 35-7 so is it something Green thinks could catch on at Quins? "No, I don't see that happening," he said.
Three changes for Ashton Gate ??— Harlequins ?? (@Harlequins) October 27, 2023
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?? Premiership debutant among the impact players
?? Team news delivered by @DHLRugbyUK#COYQ #BRIvHAR pic.twitter.com/iG2qBYnyPT
"I think we like our running rugby quite a bit more than the Springboks. I think the Springboks have a plan that they want to implement, and it will hopefully work out for them."
Bringing it back to the Premiership, Ashton Gate has happy memories for Green and his teammates. In 2021, they pulled off a sensational semi-final triumph when they came back from 28-0 down to beat Bristol 43-36 after extra-time before more heroics saw them lift the title following a 40-38 win over Exeter Chiefs in the final.
However, Quins will be without centre Luke Northmore on this occasion who has undergone surgery after injuring his knee in the 22-14 win over Exeter last weekend. Despite this blow, Green heads to Bristol [who sit second after two victories from two] in a confident mood: "Luke was actually playing really well, he’s been going well for quite a bit now. We’re going to miss him.
"I think he was actually getting into his stride really well, but we've got a few good players coming in and hopefully they can fill those boots. We just need to make sure that we can keep going and then when he gets back from injury, we're still in a place where he can join us comfortably.
“We've had two really good performances in our first two games. One didn’t go our way [a 29-28 loss to Gloucester] and one did but we felt that we've been going well, our performances have been good so the challenge is focused mainly on ourselves and we know it's going to be a tough game. Bristol have been tough over the last couple of years, so we need to go in and do our job and hopefully we can get the result."