Redemption through rugby for Halaholo as he turned away from the gangs
JUST four short years ago, Willis Halaholo was living out of his in-laws’ garage.
He would look around the cramped environment and see his four-yearold daughter asleep on one side and his wife not too far away.
At 22, the once-promising centre now at Cardiff Blues was caught up in a heavy drinking culture and earning the equivalent of £7-an-hour cleaning heavy machinery at a local yard.
Rugby was in danger of losing yet another player who had showed bags of ability but simply not enough application.
“Going through those hard times really got me through,” Halaholo reflected. “I didn’t know what I was doing. “I was cleaning machinery, trying to make some money so I could feed my family.
“I was playing club rugby, getting up at six in the morning to clean until about five in the afternoon and then I’d go to training.”
If he ever got the chance to watch television back then, Halaholo would have seen former team-mates realising their dreams of making it as professionals.
But his path seemed to be mapped out. A very different path.
Halaholo had received schoolboy honours for New Zealand aged 17 and a year later his daughter was born.
He hit the bottle and began heading down a path that led to nowhere good.
And yet when he looks back now, there are no regrets.
“I’m happy that I didn’t go professional out of high school, when I maybe should have,” he explains.
“I’m happy that I went down a path that wasn’t too good – alcohol and all that.
“I fell into that just out of high school. I had my daughter when I was 18, so I had her for my last year of school and I went down a track that wasn’t too good.
“I think if I’d gone professional straight out of high school, right now I’d be going down that path – trying things out, alcohol.
“But now I’ve got a handle on all those things, I’ve learned lots of life lessons having gotten involved with gangs and stuff back home.”
Considering his rather unorthodox journey, it’s a tribute to Halaholo that he held things together enough to earn a call-up to Tonga’s Under-20s squad for the 2009 Junior World Championship. That told him his dream of a professional career was not totally in tatters. But further setbacks followed. Playing club rugby in Auckland, Halaholo was perceived to lack commitment and now-Scarlets boss Wayne Pivac once told him he wouldn’t make it in the provincial Auckland team.
It was that point which saw the multi-skilled midfielder Halaholo in gravest danger of being consigned to the shadows for good. Then came the watershed moment.
He explained: “One night I decided to just give it all up (the booze, drugs and gang culture) and give rugby a real crack. It all happened pretty fast, really.” Still on the club rugby scene in Auckland, Halaholo was thrown a lifeline by former high school coach Mark Ozich, who was on the coaching staff at Southland, a provincial team in New Zealand’s deep south. This was it, the last chance. Ozich was going out on a limb for an overweight, out-of-shape centre having barely seen him play in years. For that, Halaholo will always be thankful. “He threw out a lifeline to me, put his name on the line for me,” Halaholo recalled. “I message him a lot just to see how he is. “I wasn’t in good shape, I was really unfit. They wanted to send me back home but he really fought for me and told them to give me a crack. “After two games I was in the starting line-up and it went from there.” The hot-stepping centre narrowly missed out on a big Super Rugby break in his first season in the ITM Cup but the call would come in his second season. Suddenly he had a decision to make – Highlanders or Hurricanes? Knowing that, realistically, he wasn’t going to see a lot of action in his first season, Halaholo looked at the decision dispassionately. “I knew I wasn’t going to get much game time at either, it was more of a learning experience,” h e explained. “I wanted to learn from Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, that was the main reason I went to the Hurricanes and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
In two short years, Halaholo had turned it all around and he’d signed a professional contract with the Hurricanes.
But with his new-found status, temptation and a subsequent regression was never too far away.
“I fell back into a few bad habits, as you do when it’s your first time making the big time. You get your chest out and all that,” he said.
“But there were a few good learning curves.”
It’s difficult not to improve as a rugby player when your locker is next to, arguably, the best centre of the last decade.
But it was away from the field that Nonu, who took on something of a mentor role, would teach Halaholo some of his most important lessons. The most critical being about what it really took to make it in the game.
Halaholo said: “I got close with Ma’a, our lockers were next to each other so we had a pretty good relationship.
“He took me for a lot of breakfasts and coffees and stuff.
“I learned a lot about myself from him, too. His professionalism is second to none.
“It’s amazing what you learn from players like that.
“You think you’ve got it, but you’re