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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

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Paul Willemse SA Rugby Feature  

Paul Willemse SA Rugby Feature