Player Focus: Mike Willemse
When arriving at a new club - never mind a new country – you wouldn’t be wrong to keep your head down and be thankful for any game time that comes your way as you find your feet in unfamiliar surroundings.
Well, having featured in 17 games this season, Mike Willemse ties Pierre Schoeman for most matches played in 2019-20. That’s a lot of rugby, and testament to both the hooker’s work ethic and ability after being thrown straight into the action by Head Coach Richard Cockerill.
Of course, the Guinness PRO14 was not in any way alien to Willemse – who joined the club from league rivals Southern Kings last summer – but his new club’s playing style, calls, physicality and work rate were.
With eight starts and three tries in the league alone, the hooker has made no excuses from the get go and, like all of his South African teammates at the club, he has slotted into the squad seamlessly.
Willemse – who we caught up with prior to the squad being put on furlough – has enjoyed every minute of his maiden season in the Scottish capital and the 27-year-old hopes to use his experiences in 2019-20 as a way to keep his own game improving into next year and beyond.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play a lot of rugby this year and it’s been a huge learning curve for me in many different ways,” explained Willemse.
“I’m very happy with the way things have gone. Obviously, the situation now has put a halt to things, but we would love to finish things off this season, just the way in which things were going – it was so positive.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, I’ve still been delighted with my first season here. I feel like I’ve really been able to really contribute to the club. I know it was a big call bringing me over here, so I hope I’ve been able to repay that faith shown in me.”
Willemse certainly repaid that faith, and more. With club captain and first team hooker Stuart McInally missing for much of the season after being given a well-deserved post-RWC break, the South African was handed the No. 2 jersey for the season opener against Zebre.
And, after impressive performances at both set-piece time and in the loose, Willemse grabbed a brace of tries – his first for the club – in October’s 46-7 route of Scarlets.
Edinburgh rank second in the Guinness PRO14 in lineout success and much of that, undoubtedly, has been down to the sure and steady hand of Willemse.
“It’s been really good. I’ve loved my time here and hopefully learned a hell of a lot from both the coaches and experienced players around me. I feel like I’m growing as a player every week.
“We’ll take a lot of faith from this campaign no matter the end scenario. We were top of the log before lockdown and we have created so much depth across the squad during that Six Nations period – it’s going to leave us in a good position moving forward.
“We’ve got a hardworking group here at the club – with a lot of internationalist players throughout – and that all adds to a well-rounded squad. If we can keep the same group together, with the same coaching staff as well, I think we can do really well next season, and hopefully, carry on where we left off.”
Now in lockdown, Willemse – who lives with teammate and fellow South African Jason Baggott – has been keeping fit, busy and positive as, like all of us, he awaits the next steps in reaction to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Willemse hopes to be back with his teammates in training soon, but admits he’s just ‘grateful’ for his health and having a roof over his head during this period of uncertainty.
“Yeah, it’s obviously not been ideal, but we’re fortunate enough to have a roof over our head and my family is safe back home in South Africa with food and housing.
“It definitely helps staying with Jason [Baggott]. We’re both South African and keep each other busy. We can always chat about things and he’s a buddy in the gym too, we’ve got a good set-up here and have been working hard.”
And, like all of Edinburgh’s squad, Willemse was on the receiving end of a weights delivery from the club’s S&C staff prior to lockdown – an effort he is hugely thankful for as got ‘the itch’ to start training again.
“Being a rugby player, I reckon you give it a week of no exercising and you start itching to do something, we’re usually so busy all the time.
“So, when the S&C guys delivered weights, we were pretty stoked. It’s been keeping us ticking over and there are only so many body weight exercises you can do before it gets really boring!
“The equipment has helped a hell of a lot. It was a huge effort from the S&C guys - for them to get around the whole of Edinburgh, delivering kit to every single player has been massive. We’ve appreciated it a lot.”
Only time will tell when the club’s players return to training, but there’s no doubt that Willemse can be excited about his career in the Scottish capital and what’s around in the corner in the years to come.