Michael Willemse will run on for the last time for the Isuzu Southern Kings when they take on the Cheetahs to close off their Guinness PRO14 2018/19 season.
The next time Willemse takes to the field, it will be in the colours of Scottish side, Edinburgh Rugby, whom the 26-year-old will be joining next season.
The highly-rated hooker’s tenure at the Isuzu Southern Kings comes to an end after three years of service for the Port Elizabeth-based side.
Born in Cape Town, Willemse spent most of his childhood in the Friendly City where he attended Grey High School, turning out for their First XV, before returning to the Mother City – playing for University of Cape Town’s Ikey Tigers.
In 2013 the hooker was part of the Junior Springboks side that finished third at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship. He also made his professional debut for Western Province in both the Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup that same year before graduating to the Stormers Super Rugby squad the following year.
At the end of 2016, Willemse returned to Port Elizabeth where he joined the Isuzu Southern Kings in their preparations for the franchise’s most successful Super Rugby campaign in 2017.
“It’s a bitter-sweet occasion for me to be playing my last game for this side,” Willemse said ahead of Saturday’s Guinness PRO 14 Round 21 clash in Bloemfontein.
“It has been an awesome three years for me here at the Isuzu Southern Kings. I just hope we can pull it off on this last one for me and the last one for the team this season
“There is a massive hunger in the team. For this group, it is the last time that all of us will be together. So we want to make it special not just for me, but for everybody in the team.
“It may be the last one for me, but I just want to get the job I’m here for done. And once the final whistle blows, then I can take in all the emotion that comes with it. At this stage the focus is on getting the job done.”
From his three years at the Isuzu Southern Kings, Willemse points out the 2017 Super Rugby season and the transition into the Guinness PRO14 in the 2017/18 season as the highlights of his career.
“The team that we had in our final year of Super Rugby was quite a special team, and what we achieved was quite memorable. That win over Waratahs in Sydney definitely stands out. I think that is what lit our entire campaign that season,” said the hooker.
“That whole journey altogether, going from Super Rugby to the Guinness PRO14 – playing in such a tough international competition, learning, improving and being in a leadership role – helped and taught me a lot. I’m grateful for the entire journey.”
Willemse has been an integral part of the Isuzu Southern Kings in his time at the franchise, particularly in leadership roles which have seen him captaining the side, including becoming the first captain for the Isuzu Southern Kings in the Guinness PRO14.
While he is excited about his new venture that awaits in Scotland, Willemse is equally excited about the new dawn at the Isuzu Southern Kings and hopes to one day return to the Eastern Cape.
“It was quite a tough decision to make because there is quite a lot of exciting stuff happening at the Isuzu Southern Kings at the moment… I still believe that there is unfinished business here. Hopefully in future I could come back,” he said.
“At this point in my life and career, this is an exciting new chapter for me. Edinburgh has been on a nice upward curve. I’m really excited to see how things will pan out that side. Hopefully it will better my personal game.”
For now, Willemse’s focus is solely on getting the job done for his current side at the Free State Stadium on Saturday afternoon when the Isuzu Southern Kings face the Cheetahs at 17h30.
There would be no greater farewell gift for the talented front-rower than a first-time victory over the arch-rivals in his last outing.
“It has been evident that we have not gotten the results we had wanted. We have come so close on a number of occasions, but we have not pulled it off. I think going into this last match, we’ve had a good two weeks where we have spent a bit of time together and just gone back to the drawing board,” he said.
“We really were not happy with the Ospreys performance in our last game. We’ve gone back and had a look at what we can improve on.
“Since I’ve been at the Isuzu Southern Kings we have not beaten the Cheetahs. We really want to pull that off this weekend. Everyone knows that it is the last game, and we really want this one.”