Springbok rugby is shot through with amazing tales of individuals overcoming adversity.
From players who pedalled hundreds of miles to play games; others who beat physical impediments; one who killed a lion with his bare hands; to another whose mother worked in the kitchen of a farmer but grabbed the chance he was given to succeed.
There are many more, but surely there is no more amazing story than that of Ashwin Willemse.
The bare details have been known for some time now. How he grew up in abject poverty and, like so many of his kin, came under the influence of gangs and the drugs they pedalled. Willemse, in his playing days, did not like being reminded of or talking about those days, but as part of his own journey to fulfilment, he has released an autobiography, Rugby Changed My World, and the unadorned facts of the journey he has travelled are far more harrowing than can be imagined.
He did not know his father, was separated from his mother and lived in a shack at the back of his grandparents’ house in the Boland town of Caledon.
“We were known as back yard people,” he said at the launch of his book, perfectly capturing the plight of people eking out their existence on the periphery of society.
He became involved with what are known as the Cape Flats gangs, revealing that their evil tentacles reach far further than the outskirts of Cape Town. He pushed their drugs and inevitably started to take them himself.
“As a teenager, I was a drug addict; I attempted suicide; there’s only one way that ends…” he told his well-heeled audience in an up-market Johannesburg hotel.
Always though, juxtaposing his degenerate life, there was rugby – a game he excelled in at the “coloured” school he attended, Swartberg Secondary.
Thanks to good people “who did not reject or discard someone who was worth rejecting and discarding”, Willemse was drawn into structures of the Boland Rugby Union, and his natural attributes of pace, size and good skill saw him included in the province’s Craven Week team.
It was then that a seemingly unimportant good deed helped to form his philosophy that “good people do good things”.
Springbok wing Breyton Paulse had given a talk at his school and, when told that Willemse was chosen for Craven Week, he promised to send him some kit – of the kind that boys at the big schools take for granted but which he could not afford.
What made the difference was that this was not a hollow promise. A kitbag with the kit was duly delivered to the school and kindled in him a belief that there is good nature to be found in the world.
“The desire to want to become a Springbok was greater than the other distractions,” said Willemse.
That was in 1999. By 2003, Willemse’s dream was fulfilled when he was capped by Rudolf Straeuli for a test against England in Durban. Another key mentor was Jake White, who had been his coach in the SA Under-20 side that won the Junior World Championship in 2002.
Willemse would earn 19 caps before his career was cut short, at the age of just 27, by severe injuries – but he did go out on a high as a member of John Smit’s squad that won the World Cup in France in 2007. He has become an erudite and skilful television presenter and a much-sought-after inspirational speaker. Together with Paulse, he launched the GreenSmile Foundation “with one goal: to be a force for good”.
“I hope the Ashwin of yesteryear will be able to be a voice of reason for young men and women who find themselves in the same constricting life. My wish is that my story can empower someone to overcome their struggles,” he said of the decision to write his story.
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. Willemse’s book is available at Makro and CNA outlets nationwide, plus online at takealot.com