OPINION: Obsessed with size, Springbok coaches turned their backs on a match-winning genius
Cheslin Kolbe, on the 23rd August, 2019, posted this one word on his Instagram and Twitter account.
It was power.
Kolbe, who a few months later would the darling of South Africa and recognized as one of the most potent attacking weapons in world rugby, was referring to Gio Aplon.
Bulls Director of Rugby and 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White this week confirmed the short-term signing of Aplon. It was as an inspirational moment as Koble’s very public acknowledgement of the player who defied physics a decade before Kolbe was saluted for making a case for the small men of the game.
I use the rugby term ‘small’ relatively because there is nothing small about Kolbe and there certainly is nothing ‘small’ about Aplon. Both players are big in every sense, and both have always been big in the way they have played the game and also in the way they have contributed to success, whenever and wherever they have played.
I first saw Aplon play for the University of Stellenbosch (Maties) against the University of Cape Town (UCT) at the Green Mile in Newlands in 2005. Former Springbok assistant coach and Stormers head coach Alan Solomons was helping out at UCT and I met up with him afterwards.
‘Did you see that bloke at fullback for them?’ said Solomons. He may have phrased it as a question but he said it as a statement. ‘He is special. He will play for the Springboks.’
Aplon did play for the Springboks, but it was more than five years after my conversation with Solomons that Aplon finally got his international reward. The journey was too brief and the man with the magical side step and potent acceleration would play just 17 Tests between 2010 and 2012.
There would be a reintroduction to the Springboks under Rassie Eramsus at the end of 2018, but there would be no on-field action for Aplon as he mentored teammates more than he monstered the opposition with his step and go.
Aplon turns 38 in October and I recall an interview he did with SA Rugby Magazine in 2018, when he said he aimed to play until he was 40 years-old. He qualified it by saying he was only joking, but he needed have because Aplon is unique as a talent, and he comfortably has the legs and the engine to play until he is 40.
It is criminal that Aplon’s finest years in South Africa were confined to 180 matches for the Stormers and Western Province. His Test career was limited but on arrival in France, Aplon instantly made a statement to all of rugby Europe. Aplon, playing for Grenoble, was adored by the rugby public, rugby media and teammates. He was also massively respected by the opposition.
Aplon’s global journey led him to Japan to play under White, who has now lured the Hawston-born wizard to Pretoria for one last hurrah.
Aplon will mentor the Bulls backs, as much as be a part of their attack.
SA Director of Rugby, Erasmus, when explaining Aplon’s call-up in 2018, applauded the quality of rugby Aplon was playing as a 36 year-old and espoused the virtues of having a fullback/winger with a kicking left foot as powerful as his running game.
Erasmus believed in Aplon’s rugby intellect, as much as his career on-field experience and Erasmus, in his time as head of rugby at the Stormers and Western Province, always invested in the skills of Aplon. Unfortunately, the national coaches always took comfort in the belief that Aplon was simply too small to play Test rugby.
This mentality prompted veteran rugby writer Gavin Mortimer to lament Aplon’s absence at the 2015 World Cup.
Mortimer, for SA Rugby Magazine in 2016, wrote: ‘Gio Aplon’s size has not counted against him in France and who knows how many international caps Gio Aplon might have won if he’d been born a Kiwi or an Aussie?’
Mortimer concluded: ‘South Africa never got the best of Aplon, never knew how to most effectively use his pace, nor understood his strengths as a runner who looked for space before contact. All the Springbok management ever saw was a man who stood at 1.75 metres and weighed 79 kilograms. Too small for Test rugby.
‘Can you imagine such short-sightedness Down Under? Well, exactly. Which is why Australia and New Zealand contested the World Cup final.’
Fast forward to 2019 in Japan and Kolbe’s stunning run against the All Blacks and even more significant try against England in the World Cup final.
Fortunately for South Africa, there was nothing short-sighted about Erasmus when he picked the Toulouse-based Kolbe for the Springboks.
Kolbe, like Aplon, had to leave South Africa to finally get his recognition. The French rugby public and media love a composer more than they do a rock star. They also appreciate that skill can stream roll size.
Aplon prospered in France, although his rugby had always been as good when playing for Western Province and Stormers. Cue the situation with Kolbe.
Neither did anything different when they went to France. What was different is that coaches in France spoke to the players’ strengths and never questioned perceived weaknesses because of size.
‘I will always fight for the small guys as a player and, as a fan, I’ll always be shouting for the small guys,’ says Aplon.
Erasmus, who Aplon describes as a tactical genius, never questioned the capability of Aplon.
And neither does White.
‘I was lucky to start under Rassie, so I got a good base to understand and analyse the game better. When he came to Cape Town, he shook my world with the way he thinks about and analyses everything,’ says Aplon, who is as much a disciple of White as he is of Erasmus.
‘Jake is a serial winner and to be coached by him was one of the reasons I went to Japan. I’ve already learned so much from him in the past 18 months. He is a fantastic coach. System-wise, he is exceptional, he implements good programmes and he will make every player better.’