Embrose Papier’s meteoric rise shows no signs of slowing down, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
For professional sportsmen at the top of their field, there are very few who come as softly-spoken and unassuming as Springbok scrumhalf Embrose Papier. Hailing from humble beginnings, the diminutive youngster has made it big in double-quick time.
Last year, he was still swimming in Varsity Cup and SA U20 circles while working his way through the junior ranks in Pretoria. A lot has happened since then.
At the beginning of 2018, then Bulls coach John Mitchell saw something special in Papier and selected the talented kid as one of three young scrumhalves in the Super Rugby squad. Next, the Boks came calling. Just over a month after his 21st birthday, he made his Test debut in the season-opening clash against Wales in Washington.
It was a true baptism of fire for Papier, who was brought on in the unfamiliar position of wing and found himself on the receiving end of a massive tackle from giant Welshman George North. In typical fashion, though, the youngster dusted himself off and headed back into action. After all, Papier may be small in stature, but he is not short of guts or gumption.
Such attributes can be traced back to his childhood days. Although born in Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, Papier grew up in Lambert’s Bay before moving to Darling with his mom, Sharoll, when he was still in primary school. His father, Edwill, is a chef who moved to New Zealand when Papier was just eight years old.
‘I didn’t know anyone when we moved to Darling,’ Papier reflects when SA Rugby magazine catches up with the rising Bok star. ‘We had to leave a lot of our family behind in Lambert’s Bay, but I’d say it was in Darling where I began to get a bit more serious about rugby.’
Provincial colours followed, with Papier going on to represent Boland at the 2010 Craven Week in Graaff-Reinet. At that point, though, a professional rugby career seemed like a distant dream.
Yet, on an otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon, everything changed when Papier and his mom were told about an opportunity for him to head to a school in Pretoria on a rugby scholarship.
Although just 15 years old, Papier didn’t hesitate to seize it. A couple of days later, the teenager boarded a bus and began the lengthy journey to an unfamiliar city away from home.
‘I was very keen to go,’ he says. ‘When other friends of mine who had gone up to Pretoria came back to visit Darling, all the young kids in our area looked up to them. I’d also noticed how big they had become, so I was motivated to follow in their footsteps because I’d always been the small, skinny one,’ he adds with a chuckle.
‘It was quite tough to leave my family behind, though, and I saw my mom crying when I left, but I didn’t have much time to think about it. I went to Hoërskool Die Wilgers for a year before joining Garsfontein, which was my fourth high school.’
It didn’t take long for the gutsy laaitie from the Western Cape to begin making a name for himself. In 2013, he represented the Blue Bulls at the U16 Grant Khomo Week, and over the next two years he would feature at Craven Week and for SA Schools as he continued his progression as one of the brightest young stars on the South African rugby horizon.
‘My time at Garsfontein was really good for me and my game,’ Papier says. ‘There were private coaches and I started focusing on my conditioning and recovery, and working on taking ownership of my position.’
While still in matric, Papier was selected for the Junior Boks squad that travelled to England in 2016, although an unfortunate ankle injury sustained in training forced him to miss out on the playoffs. The next year, he formed part of Tuks’ Varsity Cup squad, although his game time was limited as he again went on to serve as a key member of the SA U20 team that finished third at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Georgia.
Papier then returned to the junior ranks at the Bulls and started in the U21 final where they suffered a narrow loss against Western Province at Kings Park. It was around this time that changes were under way at the embattled Bulls. Mitchell had been tasked with spearheading a turnaround plan at the Pretoria-based franchise and began to look closely at which players could lead the team forward. Papier’s potential was immediately identified, with Mitchell wasting no time in picking him for the Bulls’ Super Rugby squad along with fellow No 9s Ivan van Zyl and André Warner, with 13-cap Bok Rudy Paige being cast aside.
‘I thought it was time to move forward with the young scrumhalves. I like a very fast scrumhalf,’ Mitchell said on the eve of the Super Rugby season. ‘Embrose is up and coming, and potentially a world-class No 9 – he’s demonstrated that in his age group and played international rugby at U20 level. I just think it’s time for him to start at Super Rugby level.’
Duties were divided between the three Bulls scrumhalves so Papier banked just 353 minutes of game time, but it was an opportunity he cherished.
‘I didn’t expect to be included in the Super Rugby squad straight away, but I worked really hard in the pre-season and tried to implement everything I had learned through the junior ranks and with SA Schools,’ he says. ‘I took a lot of notes during those years, which I relied on during the pre-season, and then coach Mitch gave me the backing to express myself.’
While the prodigiously talented Papier is a naturally attacking player, he has also gone to work on his basics, with the aim of becoming an all-rounder who is capable of controlling proceedings from the scrumhalf berth.
‘I’ve worked very hard on my box kicking, passing and knowing when to snipe on attack. Defensively, I’ve also done a lot of work, and although I’m still young and a bit inexperienced, I know I need to take ownership in my position.’
It’s this focus and sense of maturity that belies Papier’s tender age. He continued his meteoric rise when featuring off the bench against Wales and England in June and came on briefly as a substitute on two occasions in the Rugby Championship.
Papier was expected to bank further game time on the Boks’ end-of-year tour in the absence of club-bound Faf de Klerk.
‘I’ve realised I need to stay patient and that if I keep working hard, my opportunity [to gain further Test exposure] will come in time,’ he says. ‘I’ve learned a lot from Faf and he’s helped keep me motivated.
‘Coach Rassie also made it clear that there isn’t a divide between juniors and seniors; we’re all on the same level, and I know where I stand. There is a family feel in the Bok squad and playing with guys who have a lot of experience has made it easier for me to come into the Bok set-up as a youngster.’
Fitness permitting, De Klerk looks sure to travel to the 2019 World Cup as the Boks’ first-choice scrumhalf. However, the pecking order beyond that remains undecided and there is still plenty that could change over the next nine months. What is clear is that Papier has all the raw potential to provide more than capable cover and there is every chance he could win the long-term fight for first rights to that Bok No 9 jersey in years to come.
Papier, for one, is dreaming big.
‘Making the World Cup squad is one of my big goals; it would be incredible to go to the tournament. To win the World Cup would obviously be life-changing and as a team we are working hard towards that,’ he emphasises.
‘I know I just have to keep taking every opportunity that comes my way, and I must continue working hard at my basics and staying disciplined on and off the field. My goal is to ultimately become the best scrumhalf in the world.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.