RYAN VREDE looks at Chiliboy Ralepelle’s plight and asks some pressing questions with the hooker on the cusp of his 50th Super Rugby appearance.
This milestone seems a logical place to stop and assess Ralepelle’s career. As a schoolboy and junior international Ralepelle was widely regarded as among the best in his position in the world. The Bulls proclaimed a massive coup upon securing his signature and former Springbok captain John Smit later anointed him as his successor, an offering he should have been more conservative with in hindsight.
It hasn’t helped Ralepelle’s development or personal ambition that up until this current Super Rugby campaign he hasn’t started regularly when fit, or missed large chunks of the tournament through injury. However, despite his lack of game time in Super Rugby he was continually selected for Springbok teams under Jake White and Peter de Villiers’ watch, the coaches justifying his selections with glowing assessments of his talent, which in turn created an unrealistic standard against which Ralepelle would be measured from thereon.
His elevation to the Test stage was undoubtedly premature, and while he has never looked completely out of his depth in any of his 21 appearances (the majority of those as a substitute), the aforementioned created expectation was never met. As a result he has been unfairly branded a mediocre Test player by large sections of the South African rugby fraternity.
However, injury-free and backed by his coaches at the Bulls this season, Ralepelle has impressed and shown glimpses of the player we were told he is. But now his Test career has stalled, with no prospect of it progressing in the manner he would have hoped for unless those ahead of him in the pecking order – Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss – are injured or suffer significant losses of form.
This was supposed to be the year Ralepelle’s intimate relationship with the Springboks’ tackle bags ended. But Meyer’s appointment saw a deviation from the script. Meyer has always been a great admirer of Du Plessis, and, form and fitness permitting, will commit to him for the duration of his tenure. And while even Ralepelle’s most ardent supporters would find it difficult to motivate for him to start ahead of Du Plessis, he had realistic ambitions of being his deputy.
Not so now. Meyer deeply lamented Strauss’ departure from the Bulls during his time as head coach at the Pretoria franchise, and had actively worked for his return thereafter, maintaining he was a world-class hooker who would amplify the team’s threat. It was therefore no surprise that Meyer opted for Strauss ahead of Ralepelle for the England series and will do so again for the Rugby Championship.
So where does this leave the 25-year-old Ralepelle? He is set to remain the incumbent at the Bulls until his contract expires in October 2013. Meyer has stressed that form will always be his primary criteria for selection. Ralepelle could endeavour to force Meyer’s hand through consistently outstanding form. But what is the ceiling of his potential in comparison to that of Strauss? And if both players are at or close to that ceiling, is Ralepelle better than his challenger? I’m not sure he is, but it is an indictment on Bulls and to a greater degree Springbok coaches White and De Villiers that 50 matches into his Super Rugby and 21 Tests that nobody can answer this with any certainty.