The Montpellier second-row is a huge presence for France, but he hasn’t always cast the biggest shadow. It’s time to shine a light on him…
Giant lock Paul Willemse: “I take pleasure in the small things”
WALKING AROUND, Paul Willemse steers the kind of frame that jams doorways, blots out suns and pressures pavements. And yet the big man often wonders if he’s been seen. Really seen.
“It’s quite funny,” Willemse begins explaining to Rugby World, “normally supporters and the general rugby public never pick up on all the small things in a game. So I might come off a game and people will say, ‘He was quite quiet and didn’t do that much’, but in the back of my mind I know I stopped three mauls by myself, when they could have scored from inside the 22m. They could be playing a pick-and-go game and the player in front of me knocked the ball on because I gave him a small pull-back.
“It’s interesting because I’m not the flashy player. But I take pleasure in the small things. Though normally it’s the forwards coach that sees those small details, not even the head coach!”
Did you see those moments in the Six Nations when Cameron Woki was held up in the lineout for an impossibly long time and Scotland got done for touching him in the air, more than once? Sure, it wasn’t exactly street-legal but France benefited from the referee’s decision. And the idea was all Willemse’s – he was lifting behind Woki, and the poor fella wasn’t even forewarned they were going for it, as his locking partner just quickly assessed the situation and made the call to keep him up. And Willemse also reveals that he studies other locks in the pro game, trying to pinch aspects of their play and adding it to his own, making himself stronger, like a beefier version of the Borg in Star Trek.
Maro Itoje has come under his microscope for his defensive breakdown work, as have club locks who may seem unspectacular to you and I, but Willemse has noticed their fantastic driving technique at the maul. As he adds: “These small things make a massive impact in the game. That’s why players like Itoje are really good, because they’re able to change the momentum of the game with one small thing that nobody actually realised they did.”
This is like a player opening their notebook to you. And yet the same man revealing it all seems somewhat taken aback when it is observed that he is clearly a cerebral and diligent player.
One obvious admirer is France head coach Fabien Galthié, who has made him one of his go-to starters in a Grand Slam side. And in Montpellier, too, he is a big presence. But it is perhaps Africa, where Willemse was reared, that reveals a bit more about why he is like he is.
Born in Pretoria, Willemse played his youth rugby in South Africa but then found himself in Namibia (where his mother is from) after his parents split up, chasing the ball as a 16-year-old. He was selected for a Namibia under-age side to compete in Craven Week, to mix in with the big South African schools. Based on his performance there, he received a junior contract offer from the Lions – which necessitated moving back to South Africa to finish his schooling.
A lot of experiences crashed into each other in the years after. He had serious knee damage, a Currie Cup win, a Baby Boks Junior World Championship triumph, and won a contract at the Bulls in a short window. He gave it his all. But he was on the bench behind Flip van der Merwe, and when Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer identified a mammoth player pool to prepare for the 2015 World Cup and he wasn’t in it, Willemse pondered his future.
On that time, Willemse reveals: “I played a lot of rugby and I played really well. But they still told me that I was too big and I won’t adapt to international rugby and I was too heavy and not fit enough. Which was frustrating for me because I made such a big effort in my normal play, to show that even with my big weight there was no place I was short in. Like, I was always in the defensive line, I’m doing everything. The only thing I’m short in is experience.”
Then out of the blue he had an offer to go to France, with Stade Français. He never ended up going to Paris but he was sold on heading to Europe for some experience, and so Grenoble became the destination.
After six months, Jake White sounded the horn to come to Montpellier, where three of Willemse’s mates had already inked deals. And the rest is history. He is still there with the Occitanie club and he qualified for his adopted home on residency grounds. Today he sees his family as French, his kids as French.
But to rewind slightly, the idea of him being too big, too oafish is undoubtedly an insulting one. And it is clearly something Willemse carries with him.
“They said I was only good at schoolboy rugby because I was heavy, because I was 138 kilos”
Asked if a large part of his career to date has been about proving people wrong, the second-row replies: “For me, it’s a good thing. Because you need to find your motivation however you can get it. Luckily for me, that hasn’t had a negative effect on me; in fact, it actually has had a bit of a benefit for me.
“I’ve had it since school. In schoolboy rugby, the backlash was that I’m too heavy or I’m only good at schoolboy rugby because I’m heavy. I was 138 kilos and the guys playing against me were like 60 kilos. I was actually heavier then than I am now… (He’s currently 125kg.)
“Then I played Super Rugby and they said, ‘No, he’s too heavy.’ And then my discipline was a problem or whatever. And I kept on climbing and climbing.
“But I’m so grateful today. My whole attitude towards France is thankfulness. This country, and especially rugby in this country, has given me so much in my life. The support from people now is really amazing, but it’s cool that I had to work for it. It’s nice that it’s not just given to you. Because I can remember when I was first selected for a Six Nations that there were a lot of people who weren’t that happy, you know!
“It’s fine because everyone has a right to their opinion. I knew I had to earn the public’s respect. But that’s what makes it so much better today, because all these people are coming to me now with so much support and saying, ‘We were there that time, when everyone was saying we don’t need another foreigner, and we supported you!’”
What interests Willemse is when people ask him why he chose France. As if he was left sweating, trying to pick which button to press: Boks or Bleus. Which of course he didn’t.
The lock grew up dreaming of being a Springbok, like so many kids in South Africa. But at the core of that dream is the ideal of being the best version of yourself; of realising potential. Having been written off by some, he found people willing to help him find that potential. He valued that highly.
He freely moved to France, he says, because he was wanted there and it was new. He made some (no doubt painful) impressions in his first few seasons in the Top 14. It was working out well. And as he tells Rugby World, he made a conscious decision then.
“When I decided my life was going to be in France, I said, ‘Okay then, I’m going to go for the French team 100%.’ And I just went for it.
“It wasn’t like ‘I chose France’. No, no, I chose my rugby. I wanted to play international rugby. And I maybe had to say goodbye to a dream I had to play for the Springboks. But I made that choice easily. I made a decision knowing that it might open up a whole new dream for me I didn’t even think of before, of new possibilities for me.”
The decision to go all-in with France came at around the same time his first child was born – a time for serious reflection for most of us. But it wasn’t like some idle musings.
The France coaches had opened up dialogue with the second-row. He was capped ahead of the 2019 World Cup but was injured before the big dance commenced. However, Willemse says, he was simply keen to show Galthié what he was about before the former scrum-half took the reins on his own after the tournament in Japan. Which made it cool for a character like Willemse to be told by the coach that Galthié was a fan of his earlier stuff too. Willemse had been on his radar for quite some time.
And in 2022 he has rewarded that faith by tearing around the rugby fields of the Six Nations, clobbering blokes and making those little interventions forwards coaches so dearly love. France defence coach Shaun Edwards even revealed during the tournament: “We are a better defensive team when Paul is on the pitch. He is a very, very dominant character on the pitch.”
Yet to speak with him, he talks in near reverence of other personalities. For example, when asked who his funniest team-mates are, he points to Damian Penaud of France and Cobus Reinach of Montpellier, for their happy-go-lucky approaches to life and the energy they bring. From the inference, you assume that should either of them stack it and fall over, the way they style it out would be equal parts funny and charismatic.
Willemse also mentions the sardonic sense of humour that Uini Atonio brings to things, but it’s his and the giant tighthead’s double act in the French scrum that has garnered the most attention lately. Willemse talks of the relationship in really simple terms. “I pride myself on having the respect of my prop,” he says, then adds that he himself is “put there for a reason”.
That reason has been to power France to a Grand Slam. And if it felt like work went unnoticed in the past, there’s no way he is avoiding the spotlight now. Step out of the shadow, big man.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in April 2022.
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