Cape Town - Gio Aplon believes that while a conservative gameplan has brought the Stormers a degree of success, a “surprise element” has been introduced in recent months that could be the difference between losing a semi-final and winning a trophy in future.
And he says the Stormers and Western Province have the personnel to “dominate domestic and Super Rugby” in future.
Aplon will say goodbye to the Cape in Saturday’s clash against the Sharks at Newlands as he sets sail for Grenoble in France, and he admitted on Wednesday that this final week has been one of contrasting feelings, ranging from nerves and heartbreak to a bit of joy and excitement.
But he believes the Stormers are working their way back to the top after a miserable first half of the year by employing a more positive style of play, and that several talented youngsters coming through can begin a new era of success at Newlands.
“We had a little bit of a mind shift also - how we want to play in the future. We want to play a bit more expansive, and hopefully this goes into next year’s Super Rugby as well,” Aplon said at Newlands on Wednesday. “Knowing where we came from a couple of years ago, where we were very conservative and made semi-finals through that approach... Being a bit more expansive, I think we have a healthy balance, as you could see in the first half (against the Bulls). We really played some extraordinary rugby - having a balance and not just running everything, but kicking it and knowing when to run.
“I think that is what the crowd also wants to see, so I think the future is bright. Obviously we have guys who must still come back from injury and a lot of youngsters coming through who’ve had success at Under-21 level. We have the depth, ability and personnel to dominate domestic rugby in the future and also going on to dominate Super Rugby.
“I think you definitely need a bit of X-factor or whatever you want to call it in semi-final situations. You also have to take into account that we had a lot of success with conservative rugby, and that’s how a lot of teams play and gain success. But ultimately on the day you also need that something extra or special and that surprise element, and I think the team is moving in that direction where we can play any type of game on any type of day.”
It is a bit ironic that the Stormers are finally placing more emphasis on attack than defence now that Aplon is leaving, as there is no doubt that he was under-utilised over the years due to team tactics.
But the 31-year-old also doesn’t want the Stormers to make the same mistake when it comes to the physical size of a player in future, particularly with regards to Cheslin Kolbe. Aplon has had to play most of his Super Rugby at wing instead of his preferred fullback position due to fears that he was not big or strong enough, and he doesn’t want Kolbe to fall victim to the same kind of mentality in future.
“The way Cheslin came through the Currie Cup last year, I think he is definitely the guy for the future. Through the years, I learned from players like Breyton and tried to become better every day. At the age of 20, Cheslin possesses a lot of skills that I didn’t have,” Aplon said.
“The main thing for me is that he gets a fair chance and is not judged on his size. I hope he gets judged on his rugby abilities because he has great rugby abilities, and I think it’s maybe time for us to look away from size and look at the ability a player can bring on to the field, and see it from that perspective.
“I had my fair opportunity to play for the Springboks (17 Tests). Obviously you would like to get 50 or 100 caps, but there are quality players in South Africa. But I think the time is right to look at players and the qualities that they bring to the game and not at their size.
“I know stats show that size (matters) and whatever, but we need to judge on what’s happening between the four lines. And if a player brings something extra or has that X-factor, and has something extraordinary, why not pick him? Why not give him a chance?”
Newlands is set to be packed on Saturday as the Sharks usually attract a big crowd in Cape Town, so it should be a fitting farewell for Aplon, who says he is already taking French lessons. He said he wants to get out of his comfort zone in France and see if he is “really that good” in a new environment.
Hooker Deon Fourie, though, will miss out on a last chance to play at Newlands due to a torn hamstring. Coach Allister Coetzee confirmed that Fourie is joining French club Lyon after Super Rugby, with Peter Grant also leaving for La Rochelle in France.
Coetzee added that WP are trying to retain Sailosi Tagicakibau on loan from London Irish due to the expected absence of Jean de Villiers and Damian de Allende on Bok duty.
With Fourie out, Tiaan Liebenberg will make his first start since March 22 after returning from a three-month layoff due to a neck problem off the bench last week. “He is looking good - I haven’t seen Tiaan so trim, lean and eager to play in a long time,” forwards coach Matt Proudfoot said this week. “He is a good scrummager, very abrasive character.”