at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
He has had to wait his turn as two other fullbacks were picked ahead of him, but Gio Aplon will get his chance to run out at No 15 for the Springboks against England today, and he is ready to stake his claim for a permanent starting berth.
Zane Kirchner was the first-choice Bok fullback in the opening Test against England in Durban two weeks ago, but cried off with a knee injury and had to make way for Patrick Lambie. The Sharks star, though, succumbed to a freakish ankle injury as he landed awkwardly after jumping for an up-and-under in the second Test in Joburg.
Now Stormers blitz Aplon, who many feel should’ve been there in the first place, has been handed his opportunity by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, and he intends to make full use of it.
“It’s unbelievable to be in the starting line-up. If you look two or three weeks back, I was at home for the first week, as I didn’t make the squad. Last week I was brought into the squad, and to start now is unbelievable,” Aplon said.
Aplon, who has won 16 Test caps since 2010, admitted that he found it difficult to deal with being left out of Meyer’s first Bok squad.
“As a rugby player, you want to improve every single time you play. You want to have that constant pressure on you to be a better player.
“The coach also tells the guys that you are not secure of your place in the starting 15 or 22.”
When Meyer took charge of his first Test, the Boks were expected to play a conservative game with lots of tactical kicking and the use of the forwards in driving play.
That is what they duly dished up in the tight 22-17 victory in Durban, with aimless kicking from halfbacks Francois Hougaard and Morné Steyn contributing to a listless performance.
But things started improving in the second half, and they produced some of the most dynamic rugby played by a Bok team in the last decade as they moved the ball swiftly down the backline on the back of a strong showing from the forwards.
For someone, who is a lethal attacker with his quick feet and electric acceleration, Aplon cannot wait to be part of the action.
“If you look at the performances from the first to the second Tests, how we kept ball-in-hand more and dominated the territory, it was really good,” he said.
“It was really pleasing to see JP (Pietersen), Bryan (Habana) and all the other guys playing really well at the back. So, I’m really looking forward to Saturday, and to hopefully get the ball in the hands, but also to be part of the team’s performance and not just be selfish and try to prove a point – to do your own thing.
“I rather want to help the team do well within the structures, and then add in your own special talent.”
That “special talent” is his game-breaking ability that is well known to Stormers fans, and the man who hails from the fishing town of Hawston, says Meyer has told him to play his natural game today.
“When Heyneke came to the Cape recently at the camp, he told me he does have a particular game structure, but he never wants you to lose your special talent, as he never wants you to become an ordinary player.
“So I got some comfort from the fact that he still backs you with your special talent, but you must still do your hard work,” said Aplon.
“I think the fullbacks who were picked ahead of me played quite good rugby this year, so I have to work hard and maintain that something special.”
He will also have the on-field comfort of his Stormers captain, Jean de Villiers, leading him today, while Stormers mate Habana is at left wing.
Aplon says he is happy to see De Villiers flourishing as Bok skipper.
“I said now that we must see if we still want him as the Stormers captain. It’s awesome to have him here – having that continuity, hearing the same voice and leadership coming from the Stormers, and some of the Stormers guys are also here,” he said.
“That’s also good, and knowing Jean’s style of captaincy and knowing how he thinks and spending some time with him makes it much easier for me to fit in.
“To continue seeing him grow in the Springbok set-up, and bringing his special character and the feel he has not just for the game, but for the younger players as well, is great to see.
“Normally at the Stormers we see Jean at inside centre, but now he is at outside centre. And to have Bryan there and then JP Pietersen on the other side as well is a good thing, as I have played with them and with JP in a couple of Tests before. We want to perform as a unit in the backs and as a team before we go back to Super Rugby.”