Willemse's giant leap from drug dealer to Springbok saviour

Ashwin Willemse was a teenage gangster. Now he is 'one of the most exciting players in world rugby'. Peter Bills talked to him
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The Independent Online

For Ashwin Willemse it all began in Caledon, a small town two hours drive into the mountains from Cape Town. On a green swathe of grass across the valley the rich white boys from Overberg played their rugby. On a day Willemse will never forget, they swaggered across the valley in their smart blazers, for the match with the coloured boys of Swartberg. Defeat never entered their heads. But beaten they were, and Willemse - the vice-captain who scored one try and helped create another two - was the man who beat them. "The proudest day of my life", he says, a tear in his eye.

It was on that day, that Willemse's journey from street gangster to South African rugby star, began. Just four years ago, the new South African rugby team's resolute wing three-quarter, lived in this rugged part of the Boland province. His journey from a world of deprivation to his country's national team - he was the sole black player for most of last year - represents an article of faith in the new South Africa and its future as a rugby nation.

Willemse epitomises his country's transformation. Once the Springboks represented the Boer nation alone. Now they represent, or at least aspire to represent, the whole of South Africa's multi-cultured society. It is a big responsibility for a 23-year-old, even a caring thoughtful one such as Willemse.

His presence is a triumph, but he knows that his new country still has far to go, particularly among rugby's traditional following. At the Currie Cup final in Pretoria a couple of weeks ago a crowd gathered in front of the main stand of the Loftus rugby ground, as the Springbok squad for their current tour was announced. The naming of almost every black player was greeted with derisive taunts and expressions of disgust. It was a reminder that not all you see in modern day South Africa is harmonious and hopeful.

Willemse is not daunted by the reaction. "I am not surprised at the way some people react in this country," he says. "Am I disappointed? No. It is human nature the way people react. But now it is up to the black players to show they are worth being chosen. I am confident things will work out in this country. A lot of people will find difficulty in accepting the changes. But if we are winning, people will be calm and cool about it.

"People are not yet used to seeing 10 or 11 black players in a Springbok squad. It is the big talk of the town right now. But I am confident their perceptions will change and we will eventually all be one. If we win the Grand Slam on this tour, people will see that just because there are these black players in the squad doesn't mean we are weaker."

Quotas are the unspoken word in South African sport. They do not exist on the written page, but in reality, they dominate every selector's thoughts. They have to, if the young black Africans who never knew opportunity in their lives under the apartheid system, are to have an equal chance in any field, especially sport. This South African squad plainly was not chosen on merit. Three or four outstanding white players were left at home. But that is the way of the new South Africa, and it ill befits a white minority who happily concurred with the subjugation of an entire people, to start bleating about impartiality.

But, as Willemse points out, the issues of quotas is subjective, anyway. The Cape Coloured wing Breyton Paulse has won 48 caps, but Willemse thinks he should not be seen as a quota player. He is a Test veteran. "We should not take the word 'quota' out of proportion," he says. "It's a good thing to give guys the opportunity but you should not put a label on people just because they are a different colour," he says.

Willemse was the only black player in the South African team when he made his debut, against Scotland last year. "I just wanted to prove I was worthy of being there on merit, that I wasn't just a token selection. I didn't want to be there just because I was black, because they needed someone of my colour. I had no problems or issues with the other players."

The young man who writes poetry in his spare time, let no one down. He did not score, but his pace and strength were obvious. That game offered him a launchpad and he seized the moment, ending the year in the Springboks' team at the World Cup, where he scored one of the tries of the tournament, a spectacular solo effort against Samoa. It helped him become South Africa's Player of the Year in his first season.

A serious leg injury days before the start of the 2004 season has kept him out of Test rugby ever since. But the Springbok coach, Jake White, has brought him back at the first opportunity, saying: "Ashwin was always our first-choice wing. He brings exceptional qualities of speed, power and ability to the team. He is one of the most exciting players in world rugby."

That Willemse should now speak so positively is all the more admirable given his hugely deprived background. Drugs, violence, gangs. He experienced them all. "I sold drugs," he admits. "We'd all sit around a tree near our school and smoke dope, talk about life. Just behind the school was where one of the boys in the gang raped a girl."

Willemse knows he was lucky to survive the lifestyle. One friend was dead at 22, shot in the head when he opened his front door, another was shot by the same assailant, a third died at 22, from alcohol poisoning. Others are in prison, for murder, drug-dealing and possession of weapons. At 16, Willemse tried to commit suicide - his life was tough and he hated the world. "That is why I became a gangster. I just let loose all that frustration. I was like a madman. As for drugs, I took them as a release from the pain of life."

He was shot twice himself, but saved, partly at least by rugby. "I cannot change anything about my past, which is why I am not trying to. I am proud of what I have achieved in rugby. But I have got humbleness inside me. For I know how fortunate I am to have been as lucky as I was."