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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.

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