Raymond Rhule has overcome several career speed bumps to become a vital cog for La Rochelle going into Saturday’s European Champions Cup final against Leinster.
After notching 43 tries in 116 matches in Super Rugby and Currie Cup for the Free State Cheetahs, the speedster made his international debut in 2017, in a Springbok side that handed France three defeats.
But his seven-Test-capped career came to a halt when his defensive frailties were highlighted in a 57-0 thrashing by the All Blacks.
He then initially struggled with the intensity of the French Top 14, with “promotion and relegation which maintain a continuous pressure” something he hadn’t experienced before.
“It’s tough to live that. Each match we were playing for survival. If you don’t win it’s Pro D2,” Rhule said, having played a season in the second division for Grenoble after relegation before signing for La Rochelle in 2020.
Ronan O’Gara had just signed up as new coach of La Rochelle after a coaching stint with the Crusaders, and Rhule seemingly had the potential to fit into his ‘KBA’ (keep ball alive) philosophy.
With the promise of a gameplan based on offloading and passing, the 29-year-old also found himself alongside former SA U20 teammates Dillyn Leyds and Wiaan Liebenberg.
“What I’m living at the moment? A dream,” Rhule said. “[Playing in the Champions Cup final] is incredible for me, the club, the fans. Every summer you start a season to do something special and it’s really incredible when you manage it.”
It is a second successive European final for Rhule, this time against Leinster in Marseille on Saturday, either starting on the wing or centre. “As long as I touch the ball … put me on the pitch, we’ll find a solution,” he said.
Leinster, who thrashed defending champions Toulouse in the semi-finals, will make for tough opponents, Rhule said.
“From one to 23, they’re all internationals, really experienced. But having the best team on paper doesn’t mean anything these days, it depends so much on the mind … all the pressure will be on them, we will have nothing to lose.
“We’ll play like dogs, let nothing go. It’s a final, you don’t need to play nice rugby, just win.”
© Agence France-Presse