Halaholo is the boy from the wrong side of the tracks made good
‘I’ve always had to prove myself’: Wales’ Willis Halaholo is the boy from the wrong side of the tracks made good after making the journey from New Zealand
- Willis Halaholo underwent a difficult journey before breaking into the Wales side
- Halaholo says he was a heavy drinker and lacked discipline when in New Zealand
- The 30-year-old has managed to turn his life around and make his family proud
Each time Willis Halaholo plays for Wales his family in New Zealand move their mattress into the lounge to watch their boy in the early hours.
For he and them it is a completion of a long journey to redemption – the boy from the wrong side of the tracks made good.
Like many from Tongan culture, Halaholo is now the humble family man.
Willis Halaholo (left) has undertook a long and difficult journey to end up playing for Wales
Aged 30 he has four daughters – two born in Wales – and two caps for his adopted nation. But just over a decade ago, when his first child arrived, he was quite different.
‘I was just involved in a lot of heavy drinking,’ he explained.
‘In my last year of high school I ended up having a daughter. I was quite young 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 for a couple of years. It was an easy thing to fall into. Auckland is a big city and some people can handle the culture there other people can’t.
Halaholo says he was a heavy drinker and lacked discipline during his time in New Zealand
‘At the time coming out of High School I just didn’t have the discipline to handle that type of lifestyle.’
When his now-wife was giving birth to Atu, Halaholo was out drinking. In her early years the family lived in Halaholo’s in-law’s garage in West Auckland, until Willis decided to change his ways.
‘When she was only a few months old I didn’t know much about being a father,’ he said.
‘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.’
Earning £7-an-hour cleaning heavy machinery, at a construction company owned by a man named Liam Field, he slowly regathered his life.
‘Liam was crucial in helping me provide for my family in trying to pursue a career in rugby,’ explained Halaholo.
‘He was flexible even if I needed weeks off he would still pay me for the week.’
A rugby coach in Auckland – Ramsey Tomokino – was a guiding light.
‘He had a good relationship with my Mum and Dad,’ said Halaholo.
‘He would always snitch on me if he felt I was not doing the right thing or saw me not focusing on my rugby.’
Soon Halaholo crossed paths with one Wayne Pivac, then the Auckland coach who dropped him out of the academy.
Wayne Pivac dropped Halaholo out of Auckland’s academy but is now coaching him for Wales
Fast-forward to the present day and Halaholo – whose Tongan name is Uilisi, now listed on Welsh team sheets – could be a Grand Slam winner with two more wins under Pivac.
‘It was about eight or nine years ago I dropped everything and decided to give rugby a proper go,’ he said of his turnaround.
‘I dropped all the bad habits, knuckled down, and finally put a bit of hard work in.’
Having dropped three stone from his drinking days, in 2016 he moved from the Hurricanes in New Zealand to Cardiff Blues. He, his wife Sandra and their expanded family of daughters love it in Wales.
‘We’re really comfortable here and call it home,’ Halaholo added, having sought fellow Tongan Taulupe Faletau’s help integrating into Welsh life.
‘My daughters come home from school saying a few words in Welsh here and there. I try and understand what they say to me, but they’re testing me on that!
‘Taulupe’s been awesome. He’s been around for a wee while now and he understands how we’re brought up as Tongans but also the Welsh culture.
‘I find it easier to understand how to adapt by talking to him.’
There have been further set-backs before this Six Nations, though. Halaholo was first picked in 2019 by Pivac but social media trolls hurled racist abuse his way, saying he should never be allowed to play for Wales having qualified on residency.
When Halaholo missed his chance after having re-constructive surgery on his knee, the abusers could have had their way – but they drove him on.
‘My whole career and my whole life I’ve always been looked down on and I’ve always had to prove myself,’ he explained.
‘It drove me more just to prove them wrong. Thanks to those guys for helping me push through my rehab and get here!’
So when at Murrayfield Halaholo came off the bench for his first cap, in Auckland the mattress first was dragged into his family’s living room.
Halaholo has managed to turn his life around and has made his family proud in the process
They tuned in again as their son helped beat England last time out.
It is more special for Halaholo that they are watching from afar, proud of their boy who turned his life around.
‘My brother and his kids come over on a Saturday night and they all camp in the lounge ready to watch the game the next morning,’ Halaholo smiled.
‘It’s 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’ve wanted was to see us kids succeed and see me reach that level.
‘I have had a lot of messages from boys and older cousins who saw me at my worst coming out of high schools doing things I should not have been doing. Even they can’t believe where I have got to.’
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