Chilliboy Ralepelle will be named on the Bully Boys’ bench to play the Cheetahs on Friday, a decision that could hamper and not expedite the SA U19 and U21 star’s push for higher honours.
Only six months ago Heyneke Meyer argued that Ralepelle was not mature enough physically to play in the Currie Cup. Despite his heroics on the international stage, Meyer wisely cautioned that fast-tracking a player whose potential seemed limitless could derail the process.
Those views were echoed by Ralepelle’s mentor, U19 supremo Eugene Eloff, who stated that whilst Ralepelle could handle 30 minutes of Currie Cup rugby at a push, elevation to higher playing fields would be premature.
The arguments are as sound now as they were then, spawning the question of exactly what has changed in a few months?
Ralepelle’s development in the off-season may have resulted in improved conditioning, but tight-forward maturity is bred on the field and not in the gym.
Meyer will argue that his hand has been forced by injury. He will cite the horrendous injury run that claimed first-choice hooker (and stand-in captain) Gary Botha, and the loss of Danie Coetzee at the end of last season to London Irish.
In essence, short-term necessity is worth jeopardising the long-term aim that is ensuring Ralepelle is ready to fulfil his destiny at the 2011 World Cup.
To those who think that is melodramatic consider the following: Ralepelle is not currently in the top five hookers in the country, and there is romance behind the notion that he will be ready for a cameo role at the 2007 World Cup, but no realism.
Ralepelle’s ability and potential to become the country’s first-choice hooker is not disputed, but it is folly to forget that he is only 19. There are examples of players thrown into the cauldron that is the southern hemisphere’s regional showpiece and coping at 19, but none are tight forwards.
Meyer has Kobus van der Walt and fellow SA U21 hooker Adriaan Strauss at his disposal. Van der Walt is the favourite to inherit the No 2 jumper in Botha’s absence (he replaced Botha during last weekend’s encounter with the Sharks) and Strauss has the crucial advantage of two years extra development over Ralepelle. He is 21, and in rugby terms, that much more mature.
Risking the country’s most promising junior talent is tempting, but the curiosity that many have to see if Ralepelle sinks or swims could prove fatal.
South African rugby is littered with stories of schoolboy and junior talent unable to take the step up to higher honours because of inadequate mentoring and patience from those tasked with their career development.
If you asked the player, Ralepelle would welcome the opportunity afforded to him in Bloemfontein on Friday night. That is because he is 19 and, in his mind, bullet-proof. It is a naivety born from youth and is understandable, but Meyer has no such excuse.
Playing Ralepelle is a decision that hindsight will judge the correctness of, but whether it proves a masterstroke or misguided ‘mare cannot camouflage the unnecesarry risk associated with it.