Lionel Mapoe’s sensational Super Rugby form earned him a Springbok recall, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There was a comical moment when the Lions took on the Bulls in a memorable Super Rugby clash in Pretoria at the end of May. As Lionel Mapoe went over to score his ninth try of the season, the camera panned to a burly spectator, clad in a Bulls jersey, who couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment as he mimicked the Lions centre’s traditional pre-try celebration. With his hand firmly planted on top of his head, fingers outstretched, the Bulls fan celebrated wholeheartedly. Unintentionally, he quite aptly illustrated just how infectious Mapoe’s form has been this season.
Heading into the Super Rugby break for the June internationals, Mapoe had unequivocally established himself as the form outside centre in South Africa. Not only did his nine tries make him the joint leading try-scorer in Super Rugby, but with 95 carries, 20 clean breaks, 28 defenders beaten and 15 offloads to his name, the stats also reflected the impact the 27-year-old has made for the Lions this season.
His sublime form also ensured his inclusion in the Springbok squad for the June series against Ireland was a mere fait accompli. Yet Mapoe’s journey to the top certainly hasn’t been one without its speed bumps.
Having worked his way through the Cheetahs’ ranks as a junior player, Mapoe made his Super Rugby debut in 2010 and quickly became one of the hottest properties on the South African rugby market.
Boasting speed, versatility and game-breaking ability, the Sharks swooped to secure the services of the prolifically talented youngster. Enticed by the prospect, Mapoe moved to Durban, but instead of a new beginning, what followed was a drawn out contract dispute as the Cheetahs insisted Mapoe remained contractually bound to the Free State Rugby Union and refused to sign his clearance forms.
Mapoe, desperate to play rugby, found himself caught in the middle of a tug-of-war.
‘That year set me back a bit in my career,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Although I was injured at the start of the year, in the end I wasn’t able to play for the Sharks because the Cheetahs hadn’t signed my release form. It was a difficult time, but it made me stronger as a person.’
In the midst of this tumultuous period, Mapoe was offered a lifeline by the Lions, and the rest, as they say, is history.
‘I was still a youngster at the time, but I was desperate to play rugby again after that difficult year, and so I jumped at the opportunity when the Lions offered me a contract,’ he says. ‘Making the move to the Lions was one of the best things for my career. They welcomed me with open arms and I felt at home straight away. It’s where I’ve been happiest and where I’m loving my rugby.’
Although Mapoe endured an injury-disrupted 2011 season, his consistently impressive performances during the 2012 Super Rugby season saw the centre rewarded with a deserved Springbok call-up. Yet, despite earning inclusion in the Bok squad for their end-of-year tour to the UK, a first Test cap eluded him.
Back at the Lions, it was also a time of uncertainty as the Johannesburg-based franchise made way for the Kings in the 2013 Super Rugby competition, prompting Mapoe to move to the Bulls on loan for that season.
‘My time at the Bulls at least enabled me to keep playing at that level of Super Rugby intensity and to ensure I remained sharp as a player, but my intention was always to return to the Lions,’ he reflects. ‘Obviously, for the Lions, that time out of Super Rugby was a low point, but to consider how far we’ve come since then just shows the journey we’ve been on for the past couple of years.’
Upon their return to Super Rugby in 2014, the Lions finished in a lowly 12th position, but they did finish that season with impressive wins over the Bulls, Rebels and Cheetahs. Their progression, and Mapoe’s, since then has been something to behold.
After finishing as runners-up in the 2014 Currie Cup, the Lions went unbeaten in 10 out of their last 13 clashes in the 2015 Super Rugby season, and ended the campaign in a credible eighth place overall.
Again, Mapoe’s form was simply too good to ignore. Back in the Bok mix, his wait to wear the green and gold finally came to an end when he came off the bench in a narrow defeat to the All Blacks in July last year.
‘To get my first taste of Bok rugby and particularly to be able to run on and face the haka against the All Blacks was an absolute highlight of my career,’ he enthuses. ‘That year was also very special in the sense that things were also really coming together for us as a Lions team. Where, in the past, we had tended to lose close games, we started to come out on top. When the team is performing like that it makes it easier for individuals to shine.’
Although Mapoe admits there were mixed feelings when it became apparent he wouldn’t be going to the 2015 World Cup, he reiterates that his brief ‘taste’ of Test rugby only served to increase his hunger to keep pushing his game to new limits.
After a productive stint with the Kubota Spears in Japan, Mapoe returned to the Lions at the beginning of this year re-energised and raring to go.
His form in Super Rugby subsequently set him in a class of his own, and when the Boks gathered in camp in Stellenbosch at the end of May, assistant coach Johann van Graan passionately hailed the performances of the talented centre.
‘He’s such a brilliant rugby player,’ Van Graan said. ‘Just look at his performances [in Super Rugby], he’s been so consistent all year. Although he’s only got one Test cap, I can’t wait to see what he can do for the Boks.’
It’s an exciting prospect for any South African rugby fan, but after his latest Bok sojourn, Mapoe’s focus will shift back to the Lions and their increasingly promising hunt for the Super Rugby title.
‘We’ve always felt we’re in with a chance,’ he says. ‘The mindset of the guys is just to keep playing like we have been and to keep giving everything for each other. It’s just about being on the same page and continuing to have that balance to our play. Then we believe we can make a quarter-final, semi-final and final. We’d love to make a great season even better.’
And personally for Mapoe, it increasingly looks likely to be a career-defining season that could just keep getting better and better …
– This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine