By DANIEL GILHOOLY
Springbok winger Ashwin Willemse's life as a professional rugby player could not be further from the drug-ridden streets of his teenage years.
One of the few shining lights in South Africa's dismal 52-16 thrashing by the All Blacks in Pretoria, the 21-year-old has grown up with hardship barely imaginable for most New Zealanders.
Rugby and his faith in God helped him to escape the crime-ridden streets in Caledon, a suburb on the outskirts of Cape Town, to pursue his love of rugby.
Still vivid in his mind is the lifestyle of gangs and drug dealing that lured many of his friends and which could easily have snared him too.
"Anyone can fall off the edge, it just so happens that I didn't," Willemse said yesterday.
"Of course, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. There were threatening situations, gangs. But in the end the good man above was very kind to me. My conscience was always thinking 'maybe you can do this' [play rugby]."
Willemse said his rise to the Springbok ranks - he will play his fifth test tomorrow night at Carisbrook - should not be the only inspiration to his friends who were still in despair.
He believed South Africa was evolving into a country which offered opportunity to all.
"It's all walks of life. You can become a President, you just keep your focus on the good things."
"Rugby has given me an opportunity to go the right way instead of the wrong way. I remember even the worst gangster once said to me 'I think you need to stop this shit.'
"I'm privileged and I'm lucky to be here. You must count all your blessings."
Willemse has formed a friendship with former Caledon Mayor Errol Tobias, the only non-white Springbok on the controversial 1981 tour of New Zealand.
Tobias was called into a Springbok training session before the opening Tri-Nations test against Australia. It was mainly to provide a lift for Willemse, who was down because he had been ruled out of that test with an ankle injury. He has played every other test this year.
His other idols are former South African wingers Chester Williams and Breyton Paulse.
After two years in the Williams-coached national sevens team, Willemse made his breakthrough last year when the young Springboks won the under-21 World Cup.
He moved to Johannesburg for his first Super 12 season with the Cats.
Willemse met his father for the first time this year and learned where he acquired his natural speed and love of rugby.
"I just met the man this year and he told me he used to play wing himself," Willemse said.
"No one played on my mother's side, but now I know somebody has played. An apple doesn't fall too far from the tree."