Paul Willemse: ‘I closed my childhood dream when I sang La Marseillaise’
In front of 81,000 people, Paul Willemse experienced an identity crisis. He was standing alongside his France teammates, minutes away from making his Test debut against Wales at the Stade de France in February 2019. This should have been a positive experience, but something was not right.
“When I started singing La Marseillaise I knew in that single moment that I had closed the door on my childhood dream,” he says. “I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Even now, thinking about it, I feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting emotions I felt that day.” He was proud, but this was not how he had imagined this moment.
He was wearing blue, not green. The animal on his chest was a rooster, not a springbok. And the words he was about to sing – words he had learned only a few weeks back when he became a French citizen – were not the words of the South Africa national anthem.
Willemse, now more than two metres tall and weighing 128kg, was a hefty boy who grew up in Pretoria. He cannot remember a time when he was not obsessed with rugby. He supported the Blue Bulls and idolised Victor Matfield. But he always had a clear vision of the way his journey would unfold.
Unlike his mates he never wore replica jerseys of the Bulls or Springboks, insisting that the first time he pulled one on would be as a player. When he attended Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria with a junior academy, he refused to walk through the players’ tunnel on to the field. “I’d do it only when I had earned the right,” he says.
His parents divorced when he was 16. He moved with his mother to her home town of Tsumeb in northern Namibia and would represent his adopted country in Southern Africa’s elite high school tournament, known as Craven Week. His performances earned him a contract with the Lions franchise and a scholarship to Monument high school, alma mater of nine Springboks. He started all five games in South Africa’s successful Junior World Championship in 2012 and a year later he signed with the Bulls to partner Matfield in the second row.
“He’s a genius,” Willemse says of the most-capped Springbok (127 appearances). “He was the forwards coach as well. Learning from him was awesome. I’m the player I am today because of him.”
An inevitable Super Rugby debut followed and he seemed destined for a Springbok call-up despite injuries to his ACL and shoulder curtailing his progress. But when the coach, Heyneke Meyer, announced a squad of 80 as preparation for the 2015 World Cup, Willemse’s name was not on the list. “I know I was just 22 but I’d been playing well. And when [centre] Jean de Villiers was injured they brought in a lock to replace him. I thought ‘Am I really so far behind?’ It was hard to take.”
Soon after his agent called with an unexpected offer from the Top 14 club Grenoble. “The amount of money was incredible,” Willemse says. He cancelled his original plans to spend his final years in France and opted to cash in. “I couldn’t turn it down. I’d go to France for a year or two and then come back.” He married his girlfriend, Chanique, in Pretoria and a day later was on a plane to Paris. “I told her that we were going on a honeymoon.”
Adjusting to life in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region was difficult for the young newlyweds. Neither spoke the language and they struggled to forge a community. So when Jake White, the 2007 World-Cup winning coach, sked if Willemse would like to be part of his South African revolution at Montpellier, he started packing his bags. Wiaan Liebenberg and Bees Roux were waiting for him. By the end of the first season with his new club, he would be joined by Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, François Steyn and Pierre Spies.
This familiarity had an unexpected consequence. The Willemses grew comfortable on the Mediterranean coast and after the birth of their first child in 2017, a lifelong dream began to evaporate. “I started talking with the French staff and told them I was interested,. I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth.”
Willemse may have had doubts over his decision before his first Test but he has squashed them as emphatically as he has opposition runners. He has become a totem in a tight five that has bossed this year’s Six Nations . “I am enjoying my rugby more than I ever have,” he says. “Playing for this team is something else, though it took a while to get used to French rugby culture.”
He contrasted the more relaxed relationship between player and coach in France compared with the “militaristic” approach in South Africa. He said he would initially become agitated by a “lack of direction” but also laughed when remembering events in the dressing room, including two props repeatedly banging their heads against each other before a game. He also singled out Antoine Dupont as the embodiment of this unique rugby ecosystem.
“He’s shy and keeps to himself a lot, but who else could pull off that yellow gown?” Willemse says, referencing a recent photoshoot with GQ . “That would never have been accepted in South Africa. Being different isn’t allowed there. In France, differences are celebrated.”
Thankfully for France, he has not strayed too far from his roots. His aggression in the tight channels and in the lineout – traits honed in Pretoria – has proved integral to France’s resurgence . While Dupont and his electric backs have hogged the headlines, it is France’s pack that has ensured they have front-foot ball.
“We know internally how good we are,” Willemse says. “Inside the camp we believe we have the best pack in the world.” That claim will be tested against England on Saturday. A win would secure a first Championship since 2010 as well as a grand slam, providing a perfect platform for a home World Cup next year. There is a good chance they will meet South Africa in the knockouts.
How would Willemse feel when La Marseillaise rings out then? “I’m not sure,” he says after a lengthy pause. “I might experience those conflicting emotions all over again.”