In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Raymond Rhule reflects on being ‘cast aside’ at the Springboks and how he has resurrected his career at La Rochelle.
Rhule has been unfairly labelled and judged over the course of his career. He has fought against a relentless tide of South African rugby conservatism and has copped the blame for results that were not wholly his fault.
Since moving to La Rochelle, however, Rhule has a found a home among like-minded players and coaches who refuse to be pigeonholed or restricted. For the first time in his career, he is free to fly.
Earlier this year, La Rochelle progressed to the Champions Cup semi-finals for the first time. On the back of a man-of-the-match performance in the quarter-finals, Rhule was shortlisted for the 2021 Player of the Year accolade.
It’s fair to say that life is good for Rhule, and that he has come a long way since the dark days of 2017.
Some may remember the wing for his poor defensive performance against the All Blacks in Albany – a match that culminated in a record 57-0 loss for the Springboks. Rhule refuses to be defined by what was a collective failure, though. Through a series of dazzling displays in France, he is rewriting the narrative.
‘I’ve always had faith in my ability,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine from his home in France. ‘Many people doubted me after what happened in 2017 and again when I left South Africa in 2018. I always knew I had something more to give.
‘It’s disappointing to be cast aside and I was dealing with a few issues when I moved to France. What helped was that the clubs over here don’t care about your past, they only care about how you can help the team in the future. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or 100 Test caps. I had a blank canvas.’
Rhule’s family moved from Ghana to South Africa when he was six years old. Back then, he was excited about the possibilities of living in a new country. Soccer was his passion, but when his family moved up to Bloemfontein, he was encouraged by friends at his boarding school to give rugby a try.
‘I knew nothing about the rules or the positions, so I asked them to tell me what position I should play,’ he says with a chuckle. In later years, his best position and, indeed, the role specific to his position would become a big talking point.
‘My friends told me to play lock. I arrived at trials and I ran around the defenders to score. The coach stopped me and said, “You’re not a lock, you’re a centre.” That’s really how the journey began.’
Rhule was later drafted into the Shimlas side for the 2012 Varsity Cup. He played one Vodacom Cup match for Free State before he was ‘plucked out of left field’ to join the Junior Boks.
The SA U20 side – boasting other future Test players such as Handre Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff – went on to win the Junior World Championship tournament staged in South Africa.
Thereafter, Rhule became a regular for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby competitions. It was only in 2017 that he received his first Test cap.
‘I got my Bok number when I was brought into the touring squad in 2012,’ he says. ‘It took me five years to win my first cap. I had that Springbok blazer hanging in my cupboard all that time. It was a great moment when I got the chance to wear it after my first match against France in 2017.
‘At the time, we thought we were building something special. It’s sad that the season panned out the way it did.’
The Boks lost eight Tests in 2016 in what will go down as the worst season in South African rugby history. At the start of 2017, coach Allister Coetzee declared that the team would begin the year with a clean slate.
New players such as Rhule were backed. The Boks won their first five games of the season and drew the sixth against Australia in Perth.
Then they were brought to earth in Albany. South Africa conceded eight tries on a day many supporters will want to forget.
‘The loss against the All Blacks was a humbling experience for all of us,’ Rhule says. ‘Sometimes the bounce of the ball doesn’t go your way in rugby and we certainly had one of those days in Albany.
‘What got to me, though, was how the whole loss was pinned on me. As things were, I didn’t have the platform to speak out or challenge what was being said in the public and media. I got tagged and I just had to accept it. One minute you’re the hero and the next you’re the villain. That’s not really fair. And to make matters worse, it was the last game I played for the Boks.
‘Rugby is a team sport,’ Rhule continues. ’A group of players works together during the week. It buys into a gameplan and on the day the chosen 23 either succeeds or fails as a group. It isn’t the fault of one player if they lose.’
Even now, nearly four years later, Rhule recalls how he was targeted by the public and media.
‘A lot of people wanted to make me the scapegoat. It got so bad that I had to turn off my phone.
‘You work so hard to build your reputation and then you’re labelled as such and such. Your reputation is gone in a flash. I tried to listen to those in my inner circle, people who had supported me through it all.
‘Pro athletes say they don’t read the media or they don’t listen to what’s been said. It’s not true. It does affect you. I went through a tough time.’
Rhule hoped that a fresh start at the Stormers – after six seasons with the Cheetahs – might lead to better and bigger things. Unfortunately, he had been saddled with a new reputation, and this one was harder to shake.
‘I felt I played well during my time in Cape Town, but I soon discovered that shaking off the labels would be easier said than done. You can do 10 things well in a game and one thing poorly – people will focus on that one mistake and come to the conclusion that you’re a bad player.’
Adamant that he had to more to give, he took up a contract at Grenoble in France.
‘I was thrown into a difficult situation when I arrived. Grenoble were in a battle to avoid relegation. It’s a very different vibe to what we are used to in South Africa. Everybody in that situation is on edge, because there’s a big difference between playing in the premier and first divisions. It affects all sorts of things, including your salary.
‘In a way, that was good for me. It took my mind off the other issues and I got used to that day-to-day pressure. After a while, I was like, OK, I got this. I can handle it. And it’s helped me tackle the pressure since I’ve moved to La Rochelle.’
After a difficult journey, Rhule has arrived in an environment where he is appreciated. While he is still coming to terms with the French language, he is relishing the experience of living abroad.
‘I love the fact you can jump in your car on your day off and drive to another country in the space of a few hours. South Africa is cut off from the rest of the world. Here in France, you feel a lot more connected.
‘The people are more laid-back too. It doesn’t feel like such a rat race. I’ve got the chance to be myself.’
La Rochelle coaches Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara have certainly tapped into his potential as an athlete. Rhule is a more rounded player than he was at the Springboks.
O’Gara made headlines recently when he explained La Rochelle’s KBA (Keep Ball Alive) philosophy that has caught more-fancied sides – such as the Sale Sharks – off-guard in the Champions Cup. Rhule believes the club is leading the charge in a rugby revolution.
‘KBA is where rugby is at the moment. You need to keep the ball moving. You need to make quicker decisions if you’re going to catch the defence off-guard and find a way through – otherwise you’re just going to run into a wall.’
He insists the number of his back is of little to no consequence when the team shifts into attacking mode and the defence is fractured.
‘Jono and Ronan have encouraged me to get the ball in my hands and to play my natural game. I’m not just a finisher. I want to create opportunities for players on my outside.’
The full range of his skills has been evident in the recent Champions Cup campaign. Whether he’s drawing the last defender to put a teammate away or kicking into space for others to chase, Rhule is asking serious questions of the opposition defence.
What’s more, the La Rochelle coaches have occasionally backed him to start at No 13 – one of the most demanding defensive positions in the sport. It’s some endorsement for an area of his game that was once perceived as a major weakness.
Has Rhule improved a great deal over the years, or have the attitudes in rugby changed for the better?
‘I think back to a Bok training camp I attended in 2012,’ he says. ‘I was so excited to show what I could do. I received the ball and then cut back inside. I tried to link up with other players. I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to stay on my wing.
‘That’s what it was like in South Africa for a long time. You got pigeonholed. You’re a flyhalf, so you can do this but not that. You’re a wing, so you can do this but not that.
‘Why can’t you create and finish? I wasn’t meant to sit on the wing and wait for play to come my way. I have more to give. So yes, coming over to France allowed me to embrace what is my natural game.’
South African rugby has progressed a great deal since the dark days of 2017. Rassie Erasmus returned in early 2018 to initiate changes that would culminate in the Boks winning the 2019 World Cup.
While the Boks harnessed their traditional forward and kicking strengths, they certainly found ways and means to amplify the running talents of Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux. It’s crazy to think that there was a time when each of these individuals was berated for not conforming to a more traditional South African stereotype.
‘For a long time, South Africa was rigid in its approach,’ says Rhule. ‘They didn’t realise that some players could be ball-players and ball-carriers. I’m happy to see that so much has changed over the past few years. We are definitely moving in the right direction and starting to maximise all our strengths.’
It’s interesting to note that Rhule still refers to the Boks as ‘we’ even though he hasn’t been part of the squad since 2017. Perhaps his Bok dream is not over. Perhaps the 28-year-old will get a call from Erasmus or Jacques Nienaber in the near future and receive an opportunity to show what he can truly do at Test level.
‘Since I found rugby, I’ve always wanted to be a Springbok,’ he says. ‘That dream remains, even though I know how many good players there are in South Africa and abroad competing for a few positions.
‘I would love the chance to wear that jersey again. Part of me wants the opportunity to right a few wrongs, to prove a point.’
Some might say that Rhule already has, albeit in the colours of high-flying La Rochelle.