Lionel Mapoe is starting to fulfil his potential with the Lions, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
It’s been almost six years since Lionel Mapoe burst on to the scene, a prodigiously talented young wing, whose pace and power earmarked him as a future Springbok.
His performances during the Cheetahs’ run to the 2009 Currie Cup final had pundits believing they had discovered the next big thing. Jongi Nokwe and Odwa Ndungane’s inclusion in the Springbok squad for the November tour that year at Mapoe’s expense came as a shock, but few were in any doubt that higher honours were in the offing.
‘He’s got all the abilities to feature in that Bok 22,’ Cheetahs backline coach Hawies Fourie told SA Rugby magazine at the time. ‘Apart from his talent, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he isn’t afraid of the big names; he’ll take on anyone. He’s always had the talent, but what’s also impressed me is that he’s worked hard to take his game to the next level. When a talented player is willing to do the hard work, you know he’ll go far.’
Six years on, he’s still no closer to that elusive first Test cap. Instead, his career has been blighted by one setback after another. There was the much-publicised and at times ugly spat between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal unions over the validity of his Cheetahs contract. It was Mapoe who suffered the most, as he failed to get on to the park for much of 2010. He played just five matches in 12 months so his development and his Bok aspirations stagnated.
His move to the Lions at the start of 2011 was meant to bring a change of fortunes, but after initial success under John Mitchell, things turned sour at the union and the New Zealander was forced from his position during the 2012 Super Rugby season after a mutiny from the players. Johan Ackermann took over for the remainder of the season and was quick to shift Mapoe to centre, a position he grew into during the Currie Cup. He featured 10 times for the Lions during the defence of the title they’d won in 2011, with nine of those appearances coming at outside centre. It was clear Ackermann and co believed it was where his future lay.
‘To us, he’s a 13. We feel he brings something special to the midfield channel,’ says Ackermann. ‘He’s fast, he’s strong and he has the ability to create something out of nothing. Therefore we like to have him a bit closer to the action rather than out on the wing where his threat is neutralised a bit.’
No sooner had Mapoe settled into his new surroundings, and his new position, and he was off again, this time to the Bulls; on loan when the Lions lost their Super Rugby status. However, the emergence of Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht as a centre combination meant Mapoe found himself back out on the wing for much of the 2013 Super Rugby campaign. His form was pleasing, though, and he played his way back into the Bok frame, before his progress was halted once more. He was forced out of the run-in to the Bulls season and missed much of the Currie Cup that year with a shoulder injury.
With the Lions reinstated into Super Rugby and Mapoe restored to his favoured outside centre role, his confidence returned. He finished last season as the Lions’ top try-scorer with seven, including a hat-trick in the 60-25 demolition of the Cheetahs in his 50th Super Rugby match.
He would go on to be named the Lions’ Senior Backline Player of the Year for the second time, after taking home the prize in 2012. Ackermann believes Mapoe is finally coming good on the early promise he showed with the Blitzboks and the Cheetahs.
‘Everyone was so excited about his potential when he arrived here. He’s a good size, well built, has good feet and a strong offload game. He’s certainly got that X factor. Unfortunately he didn’t get a lot of game time with the Bulls during 2013. But last year we saw a little bit of where he can be. He showed that if he had played more in the past, he probably would’ve been at a higher level already.’
Mapoe has been on the periphery of the Springbok squad under Heyneke Meyer. He travelled with the Boks on the 2012 end-of-year tour as a wing who was able to provide midfield cover. However, despite holding a Springbok number (844), the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled.
Ackermann is in no doubt Mapoe is capable of making the step up.
‘I would definitely look at Lionel and Juan de Jongh as possible 13s. You’ve got Jan Serfontein and Damian de Allende at 12, who are classy players. Between those two strong ball-carriers and your flair players outside, you have all the ingredients for a good centre combination. Hopefully after this World Cup cycle, he’ll get the opportunity to show what he can do. He can play at the highest level, if not now, then in the coming seasons.’
The Lions have struggled to emulate their 2014 form in the early part of the Super Rugby season, and Mapoe’s impact has been limited. With a new generation of talented youngsters forging their path, like he had done six years ago, his window of opportunity seems to be closing. Mapoe needs to put his setbacks behind him and start making good on the prodigious talent that once made him one of the most sought-after backs in the land. At 26, he should be nearing the peak of his powers, but given his chequered past, there may yet be more to come.
– This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine