‘I didn’t think I was going to the World Cup’ – Grant Williams’ unique journey to Springboks’ glory

Jared Wright
Springboks scrum-half Grant Williams talks about his rugby journey.

Springboks scrum-half Grant Williams talks about his rugby journey.

Every player has their own journey to the Springbok jersey and like many of his Rugby World Cup-winning teammates, Grant Williams has an incredibly unique one.

“You know, if you look at the scripts that life has handed these players, all of them, the majority of them, they shouldn’t have been in a World Cup-winning squad,” Jacques Nienaber said.

The ex-Springboks head coach also produced a rousing speech before the World Cup final about his players’ journey to rugby’s biggest showpiece event, and while the Chasing the Sun docuseries revealed Makazole Mapimpi, Bongi Mbonambi, Duane Vermeulen and Kurt-Lee Arendse’s routes to the Green and Gold jersey, Williams’ has yet to be told.

From humble beginnings, rugby provided the rapid Williams the opportunity to make something out of himself, but it didn’t come easy and required a massive leap of faith along the way.

While he earned his place at the well-renowned Paarl Gimnasium, he did not follow Handre Pollard’s meteoric rise through the ranks,  debuting for the Boks at the age of 20.

Needing to make it work

Instead, he became Paarl Gim’s 30th Springbok at 25, coming through the club systems to do so, an unheard-of feat in the modern era.

“I don’t come from money. So rugby was my thing and I had to make it work,” the World Cup winner exclusively told Planet Rugby.

Attending a famed rugby school like Paarl Gimnasium is a huge advantage for many who want to place themselves in the spotlight for professional teams, but for Williams, there were no offers on the table once he matriculated.

Unable to get into the nearby Stellenbosch University, he took up an opportunity with the Stellenbosch Rugby Academy – which Western Province has since taken over.

There, he was able to not only hone his skills and enjoy some of the perks of student living but also learn self-discipline; there, he also got the chance to represent Maties’ club first XV.

“If I look back at the Academy, we had so much fun but in the back of my mind, I always tried to wake up early and run and put in the extras,” Williams reminisced.

“I have a picture from back then and everyone in the photo is smiling and laughing and I’m the only one sitting looking all serious.

“One of the guys sent me it and said, ‘You could see that you were taking it very seriously’.

“Of course I did, I had to make something out of myself with rugby, I didn’t have much to fall back on.

“I had great coaches there coach Warren, Okkie, all of those guys…I get emotional thinking about it because those were fun times in my journey, in my career.

“I will never be ashamed to say that I didn’t get a contract straight out of school, and I went to the Academy because I learnt how to live by myself, the discipline of doing that and not having your parents making sure you are doing what you have to do. For me, it was a stepping stone.”

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A leap of faith

So how did the talented and frightening fast scrum-half then end up in Durban playing for the Sharks? With his options drying up in the Cape, he decided to take a chance and was helped along the way by his brother and a friend he had met at the Academy.

“I needed 12 credits to get into Maties’ Varsity Cup team and I didn’t get them. And things didn’t work for me at Western Province,” he explained.

“So my brother phoned College Rovers’ manager and he brought me to Durban for a trial.

“I had to go somewhere to make it work and it was a leap of faith but I was determined to make something out of myself.

“A friend invited me to come live with him and his mother, and I lived with him for a couple of months before Rovers said they will look after me and help me.

“I played for College Rovers for a year and a half… I got invited to an U21 trial for a high-performance squad, played there for a bit and then all of a sudden, was selected for the U21 Sharks Currie Cup campaign. But I still wasn’t signed to the Sharks.”

The gamble certainly paid off with Williams going on to make his Super Rugby debut for the Sharks with a Springbok call-up not too long afterwards and he has since gone on to earn his 50th cap for the Durban-based side.

Reflecting on his journey to a Springbok cap, Williams admits that there were some challenging times but he still believes that club rugby is a viable route for players if they have right approach to it.

“It’s not easy, I remember having days in Stellenbosch where I thought, ‘I’m just going to work and try find a job’ but I persisted,” he explains.

“People will look at it as ‘Ah, I’m just a club rugby player’, but if you want to make it then it is a good stepping stone.

“You need to change that mindset though and make sure you deliver day in, day out, week on week and that’s what I did in Durban.

“I arrived in Durban as a club rugby player and fast forward seven years later, a World Cup-winning Springbok and I’m not arrogant about it but if you look at club rugby as just club rugby then you will remain a club rugby player but if you look at it as a stepping stone to better yourself, it can take you far.”

He continued: “When I went to the Academy, the guys in my age group were already playing provincial rugby, already in a Super Rugby squad, already up there.

“And if you were to tell me then, Grant in a few years you will be playing for the Sharks and will win the World Cup with the Springboks… it is far-fetched but it wasn’t just that I wanted it, I put a lot of hard work into making it happen. I had a lot of fun but there was always a drive to better myself and that helped me a lot at Maties, Rovers and Sharks.”

First taste of Springbok rugby

After securing a regular place in the Sharks’ senior squad, Williams turned his attention to higher honours with the Springboks.

In 2021, he got his first taste of what it takes to pull on the Green and Gold jumper when he was invited into his first Springbok camp with a Test debut against Wales coming the following year.

“My debut was special, of course, but my biggest accomplishment or my best moment was probably getting my call-up to the Springboks while playing in the Currie Cup in 2021,” he said.

“I didn’t play that year but just to be there in my first camp. I wouldn’t say it was bigger than my debut but that’s my personal moment, it was when I first thought I have made it.

“Flying into a Springbok camp for the first time and just being there, learning from Faf [de Klerk], Herschel [Jantjies], Cobus [Reinach] and see how things work, the system and just learn.

“Meeting guys like Morne Steyn who just welcomed me with open arms and all these players that you look up to and they just guided me through a lot of things. It was just amazing.

“It’s easy to go to a Springbok camp and feel like you have made it but it’s then going the full distance and getting into the system and being a regular.

“That’s what I’m working towards now, earning the right to be there consistently because I deserve it and not just because I have been there before.”

After debuting against Wales in 2022, Williams had to wait almost a full year to the day to earn his second Test cap coming off the bench in the Rugby Championship clash against Australia at Loftus Versveld.

He was then part of the squad that travelled early to New Zealand to tackle the All Blacks in Auckland, featuring off the bench again as he started to build momentum on the international stage.

The World Cup

Upon the Springboks’ return to South Africa, Williams was well-placed to make his push for a place in the World Cup squad and was given the ideal opportunity to further his strengthen his case when he earned his first start against Argentina.

“To be brutally honest, I didn’t think I was going to the World Cup. I was already planning to pack my bags and head back to Durban,” Williams said, looking back at 2023.

“I played against Australia, then against the All Blacks and played again after that and I felt I was getting momentum at international level.

“And then coach Rassie said, ‘Grant you starting this weekend [against Argentina] and you deserve it’ and yeah, long story short first five seconds, concussed.”

Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia had sprinted from the kick-off and attempted to charge down Williams’ kick and got it horribly wrong, clattering into the scrum-half who was taken off the field on a medical golf cart.

“I was ready to go back to Durban because it was my first start and I got concussed and there were so many nines in the squad,” he added.

“The day of the squad announcement, I was still having concussion symptoms, and it was all a bit surreal. In my head, I wasn’t going to the World Cup. We went to the squad announcement event and to see my name there… I was shocked.

“In the first few training sessions with the World Cup squad, I was a bit scared to get another knock on my head, but I managed to pull through and got selected for the game against Wales.”

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Winging it for the Springboks

The Bok coaches surprised many with the 33-man squad for the World Cup with Williams included as one of four scrum-halves in the squad.

At the time, few would have known that the coaches had planned for him and Cobus Reinach to also play on the wing.

During the World Cup, Williams started the matches against Romania and Tonga on the wing, scoring twice against the former, after featuring at scrum-half against Scotland.

His start on the wing against Romania was his first appearance in a wider role in professional rugby but he was helped along the way.

“The Springboks’ defensive system is difficult for wings but what helped me was that I played wing at school and club, so I understand the dynamics of it and on the biggest stage, I think I did alright,” he added.

“But I had guys like Kurt-Lee [Arendse], Canan, Mapimpi helping me prepare.”

Going forward, he is happy to play any role he is asked to with the Springboks, particularly given the stiff competition in the position at the moment.

“When you play for South Africa, you put your ego aside and you make sure that whatever the squad needs if it’s me playing wing, full-back or even flank, I’ll do it,” he added.

“The goal is to always to make sure that you put your hand up for selection, you perform and make sure that you deserve and earn that jersey.

“And it’s not easy if you look at all the nines performing in South Africa like Herschel is back on form, Sanele Nohamba on fire, Embrose Papier on fire, Paul de Wet, Jaden Hendrikse, Morne van den Berg and the list goes on. So for me, it’s just making sure I perform and I always put my hand up and make sure I earn that jersey.”

An exciting final with the Sharks

While the Springboks season is fast approaching, there is still a huge job ahead of Williams and the Sharks as they front up against Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The final is the Sharks’ chance at redemption after the Durbanites’ United Rugby Championship play-off hopes ended earlier than expected and Williams is excited by the fixture.

“The URC was a bit disappointing, but there a few contributing factors, a few players injured, new coaches, new systems, a five-week break for Springboks and you come back from that a bit rusty,” he said.

“There were a lot of things that didn’t work, but at the backend of the season, you’re seeing that it is working, and it’s evident how far we have come that we are in the final.

“A lot of us have ever been in a final and it’s exciting, there is a great opportunity. Yes, there is massive pressure in a final to win it, but we have worked hard, and hopefully everything goes according to plan, and we win, but we have to go in and enjoy the week too.”

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