Willis Halaholo’s journey from Auckland gang member to Wales international centre

Willis Halaholo has reflected on his remarkable rise from Auckland’s gang culture to the brink of winning a Six Nations title with Wales.

The New Zealand-born centre, who qualifies for Wales on residency, made strong contributions as a second-half substitute in victories over Scotland and England.

With the Triple Crown already secured, Wales will continue their Grand Slam push against Italy next Saturday, when 30-year-old Halaholo could make his first Test start.

All of which is a far cry from his teenage years, when heavy drinking and gangs were part of Halaholo’s life.

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He also became a father during his final year in school, which ultimately proved a catalyst for the change of direction he so badly needed.

“I was just involved in a lot of heavy drinking. In my last year of high school I ended up having a daughter,” Cardiff Rugby player Halaholo said.

“I was quite young at that age and it messed with my head a bit, and I ended up going down a different path with drinking and getting into a gang culture.

“It was the usual hanging around with the boys on the block. That happened for a couple of years, but I am just happy I turned things around.

“When my daughter was only a few months old, I didn’t know much about being a father.

“I didn’t know much until she was about two or three and started to talk. Up until then I felt like a stranger to her, and it was then I started to change things. I got there just in time.

“And about eight or nine years ago, I decided to give rugby a proper go. I dropped all the bad habits, knuckled down and finally put a bit of hard work in.

“Funnily enough, Wayne (Wales head coach Wayne Pivac) was coach of Auckland at the time.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t be a part of that squad at the time, so I took my talent elsewhere and tried to make a name myself down the line in New Zealand.

“We have met each other again and he [Pivac] has picked me up now, so I am happy with that.”

Pivac named Halaholo, who joined Cardiff five years ago and quickly settled into Welsh life with his wife and family, as part of his first Wales squad after succeeding Warren Gatland as head coach, but he then suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery.

It meant months on the sidelines, but Halaholo’s determination and drive again reaped dividends as he gained another Wales squad call-up last month and made his debut against Scotland at Murrayfield.

“When you are injured, negative thoughts creep into your head, but now that I am here I am just taking it day by day, step by step and learning from the boys,” he added.

“It is really special, especially for my parents back home, who worked hard for us to succeed. They moved from Tonga without a word of English and learned a new language, just trying to provide.

“All they have wanted was to see us kids succeed and seeing me reach that level I guess really made them proud.

“They [his parents] have been watching from Auckland, so every Saturday night they move their mattress into the lounge and get ready to wake up at five or six in the morning with my family.

“My brother and his kids come over on a Saturday night, and they all camp in the lounge ready to watch the game.

“I have had a lot of messages from boys and older cousins and stuff who saw me at my worst coming out of high school and doing things I should not have been doing.

“Even they can’t believe where I have got, and they are really proud.”

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