Chiliboy Ralepelle has outplayed his main Springbok rivals in consecutive weekends to establish himself as the form South African hooker.
If the Springboks’ Test 22 were selected today, coach Heyneke Meyer, who at his first press conference said that form would always be his primary criteria for selection, would be hard pressed to leave Ralepelle out of his run-on side.
Meyer has spoken highly of Sharks No 2 Bismarck du Plessis, calling him the ‘best hooker currently playing’ in an interview with this site prior to the 2011 World Cup, while his admiration for the Cheetahs’ Adriaan Strauss is well known. Meyer recruited Strauss to the Bulls as a youngster and deeply lamented his departure in late 2006. He also said he would have included him in the World Cup squad.
In the last fortnight Ralepelle has bested them both, showing athleticism, tactical intelligence and maturity in doing so. Of course it’s premature to speak about the hooking berth in a Springbok context. And certainly no absolute judgement can be made on Ralepelle after two rounds of competition. His relevance is the form he is exhibiting, which is in line with what his expected growth curve was as one of the world’s pre-eminent junior international hookers.
Ralepelle was done a disservice at Springbok level over the past six years. First Jake White then Peter de Villiers spoke of him as a legend in the making but treated him like a leper. He held more tackle bags than he cares to remember and found some truth in the suggestion that he was a political pawn. I know this because I interviewed him for a piece in the latest edition of SA Rugby magazine. Ralepelle speaks candidly about the effects of the last six years with the Springboks, even suggesting that his elevation in 2006 was premature.
That elevation was accompanied by great expectation. He was judged as a Test player upon his return to the Bulls, when, as a 20-year-old with limited experience in first-class rugby, that standard was unrealistic. There are some who are ready for the step up at that age, Francois Steyn and Pat Lambie among them. Ralepelle was not among those prodigious talents.
However, in 2011, with injuries not curtailing a season for the first time since his emergence, Ralepelle grew in confidence and stature. On the evidence of the past fortnight, he has carried that form into 2012. The widely held expectation is that Ralepelle will play deputy to Du Plessis at Test level. However, the latter has been a shadow of the force he was in 2011 and if Ralepelle sustains his current level of performance, which has been central to the Bulls’ success, he will have a strong case for inclusion ahead of Du Plessis.
The situation is healthy for South African rugby and Ralepelle’s form is a godsend for the Bulls, who have little depth in the position. It is important to remember too that he is attaining the standard he is in a pack shorn of experience and one still lacking synergy because of the infancy of their association. They will improve and it is reasonable to suggest that so will Ralepelle’s form.
Ralepelle’s is a success story that we see painfully too seldom with other black players’ careers. He is thriving having rebounded from injuries and survived political manipulation, the latter being a more notable achievement given the psychological and emotional nature of that particular assault. Long may his form continue.