BLEU BULL WORDS: GAVIN MORTIMER MAIN PHOTO: DAVE WINTER
PAUL WILLEMSE ONCE DREAMED OF PLAYING FOR THE SPRINGBOKS. NOW HE IS FULLY COMMITTED TO FRANCE
‘I HAVE LEARNED A NEW LANGUAGE, COPED WITH A NEW CULTURE AND GIVEN MY FAMILY THE CHANCE TO EXPERIENCE A LIFE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY’
WILLEMSE’S FRENCH ELIGIBILITY EXPLAINED
the first two or three times but it soon becomes easier. ‘As for the language, people say you pick it up just living here, but you don’t. You have to make an effort to learn it. There are a few overseas players in France who have been here five or six years and can’t speak French. It’s easy to fall into that trap but we didn’t want to.’ The reward for his endeavours was gaining French citizenship, and with it a passport, last November. ‘That gave me a sense of achievement,’ says Willemse. ‘I’m a normal guy, who didn’t study at university but I have learned a new language, coped with a new culture and given my family the chance to experience a life in another country.’
A healthy dose of fate saw Paul Willemse remain eligible to play for France, despite winning the World Rugby U20 Championship with the Junior Boks in 2012. The technicality surrounding Willemse’s eligibility has been largely overlooked, with the powerful forward having featured for South Africa’s designated ‘next senior national representative team’ in 2012. Despite this fact, the regulations at the time stipulated that players would only be ‘tied’ to their home country if they had played against an opposing team that was also designated as that nation’s ‘second representative’ side. As fate would have it, only France and Wales had their U20 sides listed as their next senior national representative teams in 2012. The Junior Boks did not play against either side during the U20 tournament that year. Instead, the SA U20s played against England (England Saxons as their ‘second representative’ team), Italy (Italia Emergenti), Ireland (Irish Wolfhounds, formerly Ireland A), Argentina (Jaguares/Pampas XV) and New Zealand (New Zealand A). Allan Dell and Braam Steyn, who also played for the SA U20 side in 2012, have subsequently gone on to feature for Scotland and Italy respectively. – Craig Lewis
There was also the chance to play Test rugby because when Bernard Laporte became president of the French Rugby Federation in 2016 he made a declaration: henceforth, no foreign-born player would be selected for France – regardless of whether they had served the stipulated three years of residency – unless they possessed a passport. Nonetheless, not everyone was pleased with Willemse’s selection. French legend STEVE HAAG/CARL FOURIE/DAVE WINTER/PASCAL GUYOT/GETTY IMAGES/GALLO IMAGES
alk about being thrown in at the deep end. The inclusion of Paul Willemse in France’s 2019 Six Nations squad is a personal triumph for the former Blue Bull four years after arriving in the country. But he joins the French squad at arguably their lowest ebb in living memory. It’s nine years since they last won the Six Nations – their longest barren spell since the 1930s – and 2018 ended with a humiliating 21-14 defeat to Fiji in Paris. SA Rugby magazine spoke to Willemse a couple of days after he and the rest of the squad had booked into their training base just south of Paris. The French capital was blanketed in snow and it must have felt a long way from home for the 26-year-old – that’s home as in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier. Montpellier’s climate isn’t too dissimilar from South Africa’s and there are other factors in common: the sea, a good wine-growing region and what Willemse describes as ‘the general atmosphere’. Willemse arrived in Montpellier in June 2015 after a short stay at Grenoble. He was lured south by Jake White, who had been installed as the club’s coach five months earlier. When SA Rugby magazine spoke to Willemse at the tail-end of 2015 he was still finding his feet in France, on and off the field. More than three years on, he’s found them, thanks to hard work. ‘When my wife and I arrived in France we said that to give ourselves the best chance we had to learn the language and embrace the culture,’ he explains. ‘Our mindset was to let people only help us once with something and then it was up to us to figure it out. If you do it like that then, yes, it’s difficult for
Dimitri Yachvili said that ‘picking Willemse is a regression for the French team ... besides, if the Springboks haven’t selected him it’s for a reason’. Willemse says he was prepared for some ‘negativity’ but overall the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Yachvili may wonder why the South African has been chosen over Yoann Maestri, Paul Jedrasiak and others, but the answer is for his skill, fitness and brain; attributes that, frankly, have been found wanting in many French locks in recent years. Just look at Sébastien Vahaamahina and that pass he threw against Wales that was picked
off by George North for the winning try in the opening game of this year’s Six Nations. When we spoke, Willemse insisted the squad was looking forward to the World Cup year with confidence despite the run of dreadful results. ‘Morale is good,’ he said. ‘There have been a lot of defeats, but most have been narrow ones, and we don’t need to rethink the whole game plan, we just need every player to put in 10% more effort.’ They did that in the first half of the match against Wales, producing the best 40 minutes of rugby from a French side for several seasons. Willemse played his part in helping France to
WILLEMSE ‘SOLID’ ON TEST DEBUT ‘Desperate’ was the front-page headline on L’Equipe, the daily French sports paper, the morning after the defeat to Wales. In blowing a 16-0 half-time lead, Les Bleus once more showed their mental frailties and displayed technical deficiencies that would embarrass a school XV. Ominously, only 60 000 of the 80 000 seats were taken at the Stade de France, evidence that French supporters are starting to give up on their team after a decade of steady decline. Willemse had a solid if unspectacular debut before he was substituted after 58 minutes. L’Equipe considered that he ‘fulfilled his selection’ and was a force for the good in the breakdown, although the paper noted it was his missed tackle that allowed Wales to score their opening try.
‘I DREAMED OF PLAYING FOR THE BOKS ... I TOOK A DIFFERENT PATH BUT I AM NOT AT ALL NEGATIVE TOWARDS SOUTH AFRICA’ a 16-0 lead at the break, but they were as bad in the second period as they were good in the first and Wales fought back for a 24-19 victory. Shortly after becoming a French citizen Willemse spoke to a journalist and was quoted as saying ‘the Springboks don’t need me and I don’t need them’. What he meant, he explains, was lost in translation, making him sound a little resentful, which isn’t the case. ‘I said to the French journalist that there are a lot of really good locks in South Africa so they had no need for me. Likewise for me. As a boy I dreamed of playing for the Boks, but then I came to France and integrated into the culture, and the birth of my son here changed me 100%. I took a different path but I am not at all negative towards South Africa.’ The journey from Pretoria to Paris, and from the Bulls to Les Bleus has been a long way, but it’s been a bon voyage for Willemse. MORTIMER IS A PARIS-BASED RUGBY WRITER. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @GAVINMORTIMER7.