10 May 2012
South Africa’s Ashwin Willemse was recently selected by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to be the ambassador for its upcoming IRB Junior World Championship, which is contested by under-21 teams. In this capacity he’ll help to promote the event around South Africa, and build national excitement and support for it.
The event takes place at Cape Town’s brand new UCT Stadium and Stellenbosch’s Danie Craven Stadium from 4 to 22 June.
Willemse was previously a member of a junior World Cup-winning squad (which was known as the Under-21 World Cup at the time) when he made his national debut on the left wing for the South African team that took home the silverware at the 2002 event, played in South Africa.
The coach of that team was Jake White, who went on to lead South Africa to Rugby World Cup glory in 2007.
Player of the Year
In 2003, Willemse was selected to represent the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup in Australia. That same year he won three prestigious awards at the annual South African Rugby Awards, being named Player of the Year, the Players’ Player of the Year, and Most Promising Player of the Year.
Four years later he was part of the World Cup winning team in France, making him one of the handful of players to have won both of the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) junior and senior championships.
Willemse was capped 19 times in total, and scored five tries for his country, but injuries undermined what could have been an even better career.
“The IRB Junior World Championship is a huge stepping stone for young players who aspire to be full internationals,” he said at the tournament’s launch event in Cape Town. “I’m looking forward to playing my part, to convince all Capetonians to get behind the tournament.”
South Africa has been drawn in pool B along with England, Ireland and Italy. Their traditional arch-rivals Australia and New Zealand are playing in pools C and A respectively.
The President of the South African Rugby Union, Oregan Hoskins, described Willemse as an outstanding role model for youngsters.
“Ashwin is a shining example of what you can achieve through hard work, dedication and commitment,” he said. “As a teenager and later as a young adult, he rose above his challenging circumstances to establish himself as one of the best junior rugby players in the country and later as a worthy Springbok.”
Although he grew up on the Cape Flats without a father and mentor, at school Willemse excelled at sport. Speaking at the Beyond Sport Summit in 2011, he named Namibian Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks as one of his childhood heroes.
‘You were not supposed to become anything’
“Where we grew up,” he said, “you were not supposed to become anything, you were not supposed to achieve anything. You were limited to the walls and the boundaries of the school, and the boundaries of the town, and the gangs and drugs and violence that existed in your immediate environment.”
In his first year of high school Willemse encountered his first mentor, an English teacher and sports coach named Andre de Bruin, who took the gifted young sportsman under his wing.
De Bruin’s patronage wasn’t enough to prevent Willemse from succumbing to the temptation of gangs and drugs. He eventually became an addict and a member of the notorious Americans gang, and saw several of his friends die in gang-related violence.
But throughout those turbulent times, Willemse retained his passion for rugby. The turning point came in 1999, when former Springbok wing Breyton Paulse, another of Willemse’s heroes, visited his school to talk to the kids. At the time Willemse was 17 years old, with massive potential but was, in his own words, a “juvenile delinquent with no future”.
Willemse was introduced to the affable Paulse, who was informed that the youngster had been selected for the annual national provincial schools rugby festival, the Craven Week – known as a scouting ground for future national stars – but had no rugby kit to take with him. Paulse donated a kit bag with all the essentials to help Willemse get to the tournament and, touched by the gesture, Willemse made the commitment to leave his life of crime behind.
Breyton Paulse’s 50th test jersey
In 2002, Willemse was selected for the junior national team, replacing none other than Paulse on the wing. Two years later the two players were teammates on a tour to the UK, and after the second test match against Ireland – which happened to be Paulse’s 50th test – Willemse asked him for his specially printed shirt as a souvenir.
When Paulse questioned Willemse’s request, the latter player reminded him of the day when, as a high school pupil, his life was changed by Paulse’s kindness. “He didn’t realise that boy was me,” said Willemse.
The rugby star attributes much of his success to the fact that he was fortunate enough to have good people come his way at crucial times, who helped and guided him on the right path.
In 2009 Willemse retired from international rugby and is these days a popular motivational speaker. He is also a member of the Supersport television panel of rugby analysts.
SA under-20 preparations
In April, the South African under-20 team wrapped up a series victory over Argentina’s Pumitas, winning two games and drawing the third. The South Americans were on a whirlwind tour ahead of the world championships.
“We are very proud of the ways our boys played. We proved that we can be competitive at an international level and this gives us the confidence we need to prepare for June,” said coach Dawie Theron.
“This tour was a great learning experience even for us coaches. We now know how ready our players are for the JWC and what we still need to work on.”
The team has since been announced and includes a number of players with experience in the Sevens and Super Rugby international tournaments.
The 28-man squad includes Blue Bulls’ flank Wian Liebenberg as captain, Vodacom Cheetahs’ flyhalf Johan Goosen (whose participation is questionable because of injury), DHL Stormers’ prop Steven Kitshoff, and up-and-coming flyhalf Tony Jantjies, the younger brother of Springbok flyhalf Elton.
South Africa start their campaign with a game against Ireland at the Danie Craven Stadium on 4 June.
First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.