Veteran fullback Gio Aplon returns to South African rugby with plenty of knowledge to impart at the Vodacom Bulls, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Aplon is pleased that perceptions regarding size and ability are changing in South African rugby circles. While this shift in mindset is unlikely to result in a national recall – Aplon will be 38 this October – he’s thrilled to see smaller players like Cheslin Kolbe receiving an extensive opportunity to set international rugby alight.
What might Aplon have achieved if he’d enjoyed similar backing at a crucial stage of his career? As it happened, Aplon was told that he was too small for Test rugby. He played the last of his 17 games for the Boks in 2012. Two years later, he moved from the Stormers to Grenoble in France.
‘I grew up admiring Breyton Paulse and Brent Russell,’ Aplon tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘They inspired me to believe a career in rugby was possible. Throughout my school career, and even in the period that followed, I fought the perception that smaller players couldn’t cut it. By the time I reached the highest level, I felt that I had proved myself and deserved to be judged on my ability alone. I was so sick of people making a big deal about my size.
‘I got over it, though. I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living my dream. I walked a different path and I can honestly say that I’m happy with how things turned out for me. With regards to the size issue, it’s great to see a guy like Cheslin shining for the Boks at big tournaments like the World Cup in Japan. That certainly shows that size isn’t everything.’
Paulse took Aplon under his wing when the latter played for the Stormers in 2007. The veteran recognised the challenge facing the gifted youngster, as he had experienced it himself. A few years down the line, Aplon passed on what he had learned from Paulse to a young Kolbe.
‘Gio has always been more than a gifted attacking player. He has a heart of a lion,’ says Paulse. ‘I remember how he smashed through the France defence to score at Newlands in 2010. I remember how he took on Bakkies Botha when the Stormers played the Bulls in the same season. He doesn’t back down.
‘It’s not hard to understand why younger guys would look up to a player like that. People go on about his size. Personally I think it’s a travesty that he didn’t receive more Test caps.’
Aplon’s rugby story has not panned out as most hoped it would. A six-year stint abroad, however, prompted an unexpected transformation.
‘South Africa provided me with my foundation as a rugby player,’ he says. ‘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 another 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 this year. I feel like I helped the players grow as professionals and that they helped me grow as a person.’
The Covid-19 crisis brought the 2020 Top League season to an end and White took up an offer to rebuild the Bulls. It wasn’t long before he offered Aplon a position in the setup.
At that point, Aplon had just finished his degree in accounting and was looking to take his first steps into the corporate world. He decided to delay those plans and join White in South Africa.
‘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. I want to give back.’
White is not the only coach who has looked to harness Aplon’s various strengths in recent times. In 2018, Rassie Erasmus included Aplon in the Bok squad for the end of year tour of Europe. While Aplon didn’t play, he had a hand in the development of youngsters like Kolbe.
‘Rassie has had a big influence on me,’ says Aplon. ‘He encouraged everyone to think about the game differently when he took over at the Stormers in 2008. I stayed in contact with him when I was in France and when he was in Munster. A couple of years later, he sounded me out about a role with the Boks. He didn’t know whether fullback Willie le Roux would be available due to club commitments with Wasps. He wanted to know if I could fulfil a role as a senior player.
‘I’d left South Africa thinking I probably wouldn’t be involved with the Boks again, even though I knew that I had something more to give. Then Rassie gives me a call in 2018 and I’m back in the mix. It meant the world to me. He said that there may be an opportunity for me to go to the 2019 World Cup, so I was motivated to give my best as a player too.
‘It was a privilege to be part of that set-up, even for such a short time. I was honoured to work with some of those players, and hopefully I helped them in some small way. I didn’t need to make the World Cup squad to be complete at that point. I was content with the way my own journey had unfolded in France and Japan.’
Paulse notes that Erasmus has got the balance right. The former Bok wing feels that more coaches, like White, are starting to follow suit.
‘Size is no longer part of the debate,’ he says. ‘Look at the second try scored by the Boks in the World Cup final last year. Cheslin danced around several defenders to score. What’s more, we saw how good players like Cheslin were on defence and in the air at that tournament. What more do you want from an international player?
‘There has always been room for smaller players in a rugby team,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying that the coach should pick 15 small players any more than I’m saying he should pick 15 big players. It all comes down to the ability of the player and how he fits into a gameplan. Some coaches, like Rassie, are showing an appreciation for ability. It would be great if more coaches, especially in South Africa, changed their mindset and looked beyond what they see.
‘These players come into their own on turnover ball. We see New Zealand harnessing that at Test level. The Boks have started to use these players too. The likes of Cheslin and Willie are all lurking, getting ready to make the big play. The Boks are trying to create situations where there will be mismatches, where Cheslin or Makazole Mapimpi will run against a front-row forward for example. Hopefully Gio will get the chance to do the same at the Bulls, as he can be devastating when he has a bit of space.’
Some may continue to doubt Aplon and other players who don’t measure up to traditional expectations. Many, however, will continue to be inspired by what the likes of Aplon and Kolbe produce on the field.
‘A fan came up to me to say that his son, who is small for his age, is determined to play rugby because of me and my success,’ says Aplon. ‘That was so great to hear. Long may that continue. Kids will look at what Cheslin has achieved and they will adopt the same attitude and believe they can do the same. There is a place for everyone in the game and ultimately you should be judged on your performance.’
SA’S POCKET ROCKETS IN THE PRO ERA
Height Weight Test Career Caps
Breyton Paulse 1.78m 80kg 1999-2007 64
Brent Russell 1.74m 83kg 2002-2006 23
Gio Aplon 1.75m 78kg 2010-2012 17
Cheslin Kolbe 1.71m 74kg 2018-present 14