Aplon’s pulling his weight

Gio Aplon’s size has not counted against him in France, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

Who knows how many caps Gio Aplon might have won if he’d been born a Kiwi or an Aussie. Probably more than the 17 he collected in his all-too-brief career as a Springbok. Four of those came from the bench, and in his two years in the squad Aplon appeared on
the wing, in the centre and at fullback before the plug was pulled in 2012.

One can’t but feel 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 saw was a man who stood at 1.75m and weighed 79kg. 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.

The irony is that Aplon now plays his rugby for Grenoble in France, the country that – at international level, at least – has embraced the Big is Beautiful dogma more enthusiastically than any other nation. Where once they had Philippe Sella in the centre, now Les Bleus boast Mathieu Bastareaud.

Thankfully, however, the French rugby press still value skill over size, and Aplon is grateful.

‘It’s a relief that no one here worries about size,’ says the 33-year-old. ‘In the past it was a factor but nothing has ever been written about it in France. So I can go out and enjoy my rugby and not feel I have to prove myself each week.’

There are no feelings of bitterness from Aplon, a cheerful individual with a voice as soft as his hands. Nonetheless it’s clear that in South Africa he found the negativity about his physique wearying. In a 2011 interview he spoke of overcoming ‘the mental block some people had against me because of my size. I had to be better than the rest to show them what sort of player I really was.’

If his spirits ever flagged he remembered those who had fought similar battles in the past, like Christian Cullen, Shane Williams and Jason Robinson.

A trio of more gifted footballers you’d be hard pressed to find, but they too were the exception to the rule. But is the era of Big is Best drawing to a close? Which players illuminated the 2015 World Cup? The likes of Dan Carter, Matt Giteau, Ayumu Goromaru, Juan Imhoff, Ben Smith and Nehe Milner-Skudder, none of whom are 100kg giants.

‘I think what the World Cup proved is that you need skill,’ says Aplon. ‘The days of only size mattering have gone. Of course you still need power and strength, but with that you need skill.’

Aplon is pleased, as should most rugby enthusiasts be, but he’s also quick to emphasise that ‘even though you’re small you must still pull your weight’. He’s too modest to cite himself an an exemplar, but what he means is that the slighter players must never shirk their other duties, such as hitting the rucks and making tackles.

‘If a smaller player works really hard on the technical side of his game, that, together with his natural speed and  elusiveness, will be enough to beat a big player.’

Aplon arrived at Grenoble, the spacious city at the foot of the Alps, for the start of the 2014-15 season, with his wife and child. There’s been another addition to the family since then, and nearly two years on, Aplon feels so good in Grenoble that he has extended his contract to the end of the 2017-18 season.

‘It was hard work at first,’ he says. ‘The language is a barrier and you have to go through a lot of growing pains. But we made the decision to come here, so we were prepared for that. Also, we arrived wanting it to feel like our home. If you get to France and you start comparing things to South Africa, you are sure to find faults. Accept the differences and life will be easier.’

One senses that the battles Aplon has fought over the years to be accepted as a top-flight rugby player have steeled his character and matured his mind. He is one of life’s thinkers, happy to live in the moment but not afraid to look to the future.

‘Going overseas was tough,’ he admits. ‘I was comfortable at Western Province, I had my mates, and it’s an awesome environment. But I had to face the fact I’d reached a stage in my career where I had to look at it financially. And I wanted to leave Province on good terms and on a high. What I didn’t want was to be told one day, “Listen, Gio, you’re not good enough any more.”’

So Aplon accepted Grenoble’s offer and how the club has benefited from his arrival. He put in a Man of the Match display in their stunning 33-29 win over Toulon in November and the Hawston-born fullback symbolises the pace and panache with which Grenoble play.

When Aplon does hang up his boots in 2018, he’ll return to Cape Town, take a nine-to-five job in accounting and spend weekends with the family.

‘I also want to have the feeling of being a fan,’ he adds. ‘Watching matches with friends and arguing about who’s playing the best.’

And shouting for the small guys.

– This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt