Gio Aplon says he never expected to receive an offer to join the Vodacom Bulls, but is looking forward to the opportunity as both a player and mentor.
In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Aplon spoke to JON CARDINELLI about the surprise turn of events after the Covid-19 crisis brought the 2020 Top League season to an end.
At that point, Aplon had just finished his degree in accounting and was looking to take his first steps into the corporate world.
However, Jake White had taken up a director of rugby position at the Bulls, and it wasn’t long before he offered Aplon a position in the set-up.
‘Finishing my career in Pretoria was never part of the plan,’ he says with a laugh. ‘When I left South Africa in 2014, I thought that my career in this country was over. I had no idea what would happen in France and then in Japan.
‘When Jake told me about his plans for the Bulls, I couldn’t say no. I’m looking forward to the opportunity as a player and will be doing everything I can to help the side win some silverware. Who wouldn’t want to end their career with a trophy?
‘At the same time, I’m looking forward to my role as a mentor. I’ve played a lot of rugby in different countries. I’ve been exposed to different players, coaches and systems, and I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to share at this stage of my career. I want to give back.’
Aplon’s return to South Africa has followed stints in Japan, with Grenoble in France, and several years at the Stormers as a youngster.
The 37-year-old says each provided a learning curve.
‘South Africa provided me with my foundation as a rugby player. France allowed me to realise my attacking potential. Japan encouraged me to add another layer to my game as a leader and someone who can help others.
‘The first six months in France were tough in terms of the culture shock,’ he remembers. ‘The language, food, the way they drove on the right … it was alien to me. I was staying in a small guesthouse alone, as my wife was still in South Africa. It did cross my mind that I may have made the wrong decision.
‘Before I left, the Stormers told me that the door was open should I decide to return. When I started to think about it, though, I realised that it simply wasn’t an option. I couldn’t go back, as a 31-year-old player, and slip back into the same old routine for another season or two. What would happen after that? I decided that I had to make it work in France, and that ultimately this time abroad would take me forward rather than back.’
Aplon also felt that he owed something to Grenoble. ‘They told me that they were in the market for Gio Aplon, not just in the market for any old fullback. That shaped my attitude when I started playing for them. I thought, OK, I have an opportunity here to be myself. The shackles were off and I enjoyed myself immensely during those three years.’
Grenoble were so impressed that they extended Aplon’s contract by four years. Then Jake White called to offer the veteran a gig with Toyota Verblitz in Japan. Again, Aplon saw the move as an opportunity to grow.
‘I gained so much from the experience. The way the Japanese respect and value you as a person … it’s something I will never forget. It was emotional to say goodbye earlier this year. I feel like I helped the players grow as professionals and that they helped me grow as a person …’
*The full feature with Aplon can be found in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.