Two continents, three clubs and a new language: Paul Willemse’s path to Test rugby
Former Bulls player is on the verge of being selected for France for the Six Nations opener against Wales
Paris — Two continents, three clubs and a new language. SA-born Paul Willemse has taken the long route to potentially making his debut for France in Friday’s Six Nations opener against Wales.
Willemse arrived on French soil in 2014 as a 21-year-old a matter of weeks after losing a Currie Cup semifinal with the Blue Bulls, and little did he know five years later he would be days away from wearing an international blue shirt.
The 2012 world champion with the Baby Boks headed to French outfit Grenoble the day after he married his childhood sweetheart.
“The day after our marriage, we left for Grenoble. It was our honeymoon,” Willemse said.
It all could have been very different. As the club’s former coach, Bernard Jackman, explained: the 2.01m giant was one of two options he was considering for the next campaign.
“We had pretty much finished recruitment for the season and two days before the deadline Fabrice Landreau [sporting director] said to me the president had given us extra money for a lock,” Jackman said. “We had two guys on the radar; one of them was Willemse and the other was Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini.
“By the time I got back to Lavanini, he had already signed for Racing 92. So I was left with Willemse, so we got the deal done quickly.”
At the end of his first season, Willemse moved to Montpellier and some clear differences between daily French and SA life stood out more than others.
“It was the first time I had seen a woman walk alone at 10 o’clock in the night and children taking the bus alone,” he said. “My family have a lot of freedom here to live a good life, to play in a park or just take the bus. It’s a really good thing for us,” he said.
Willemse decided on becoming the 11th South African-born player to wear the famous blue jersey in 2017.
“At the start, I wanted to play for two years in France, gain experience and then go back to South Africa,” he said. “But the birth of my son changed my mind. Once I knew it was possible to play for France it became my 100% goal,” he added.
A hurdle to his international ambitions came when French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte announced a French passport was needed to represent the country in addition to the three years of residency required by World Rugby regulations.
Gaining his citizenship in November was the last of Willemse’s endeavours to assimilate with his new countrymen.
“I want people to respect all the effort I have put into learning French and to integrate,” he said. “I think everyone can understand that. But if not, it’s not serious.
“And kissing people you don’t know on both cheeks is strange,” he said. The Irishman who brought Willemse to France believes the second-rower was destined to play Test rugby and compares him to another SA titan who spent a period in the French league with Toulon.
“I think if he wasn’t playing for France he would be playing for South Africa. I do think he’s an international lock,” Jackman said. “He’s the nearest thing I’ve seen to Bakkies Botha, he has that quality, that kind of aggression. That’s rare to have both and I’m delighted for him.”
Willemse could make the next step in his rugby career in the French capital on Friday, more than 8,000km from where it all started, with his pregnant wife and son watching on.