Re­demp­tion through rugby for Hala­holo as he turned away from the gangs

South Wales Echo - - RUGBY UNION -

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

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