Some players announce themselves on the rugby scene the moment they take the field in front of our television cameras, some take longer, but it is no less worth the wait!
For years those who supported the player talked up his ability or promise, unfortunately for them, his detractors could simply point to the cold hard facts of his on-field performances over the years to kick the ‘he has the ability to become great’ argument into touch.
It was a losing battle, because ultimately rugby players are judged on what they produce on the field and not on the promise they show off it.
But it was also an unfair contest.
Various publication over the years have highlighted the limited opportunities Ralepelle received both at his franchise and at national level. In South Africa specifically, that is usually a death sentence for the career of any player, especially if you are coloured or black.
Predictably, and perhaps with some justification, Chiliboy like so many before him was branded a ‘token’ rugby player, only being selected to appease the political landscape of rugby in South Africa.
But unlike so many other players who took the easy way out and moved from one team to another, or hopped on the first plane to Europe, Ralepelle stuck it out and stayed at the union where he made his debut in 2005.
Not only does it give you an idea of the character of the player, but perhaps also (and easily forgotten) those of his coaches at the Bulls.
Chiliboy made his senior professional debut for the Bulls in 2005. He made his Super rugby debut the following year in 2006 coming on as a replacement in two matches after which, he was sent back to the Vodacom Cup for further development. The Bulls coach at the time, Heyneke Meyer, made it clear that although Chiliboy is highly rated, his career as a front-row player should be carefully managed.
The same year (2006) Chiliboy captained the Springbok U21 side in the Rugby World Championship in France, where they lost to the hosts in the final, and against the advice of his Bulls coach, was later included in the senior Springbok team that same year for the Tri-Nations where he made his debut in August of 2006.
Since then, Ralepelle’s career took a serious nose-dive. He was struck down by injuries at crucial stages of the seasons that followed which saw him spent more time on the sidelines and in lower level teams like the Vodacom Cup (to regain fitness). To say his opportunities he was afforded at both union and national level was limited since his initial debut, would be a gross understatement.
Ralepelle’s nightmare run came to a climax at the end of 2010, where he, with fellow debutant, Bjorn Basson, was sent home from the end of the year tour in Europe for failing a drug test.
It was the ultimate embarrassment to a player who for years not only had to endure the public and media criticism of being a politically motivated selection, but now also answer to allegations of being a drug-cheat.
Yet, even after all of that, Ralepelle picked himself up, cleared his name and got stuck in with his franchise to prepare for the new Super rugby season.
Then came 2011, and specifically, the game against the Sharks – but in all honesty, this was not where Ralepelle turned his career around in my opinion.
2010 was a watershed year for Ralepelle. After he was struck down by a foot injury again, he had an honest talk with Bulls management and a decision was made in the beginning of 2010 that he would take no part in the Super 14 of that year, and that he would use the Vodacom Cup to get those elusive 80 minutes of consistent rugby he could never get since he made his Super rugby debut in 2006, and if there is a moment Ralepelle looks back on in future as being one of his most important decisions of his career, it would be this one.
His progression was rapid. And as strange as it may sound for a player that has been part of the Springbok setup since 2006, the player finally matured.
Evidence of this is quite easy for anyone to see. In 2011, Chiliboy Ralepelle started 7 out of the 12 games so far for the Bulls in Super rugby, the last of which was of course, the match against the Sharks in Durban where he came head-to-head with who many believe is the best hooker in the world, Bismarck du Plessis.
I don’t need to tell you, or even convince you who came out on top with opinions or statistics. For those who watched the game, but especially those who played in the game, the result was obvious. Statistics will show Ralepelle had an awesome game if you want to have a look at them, but of far greater importance was the recognition of his own team mates and coaching team following the match.
Chiliboy ended up in the Bulls private post-match awards ceremony with what Dewald Potgieter referred to as the ‘Tripple Crown’ of Bulls awards. He made the most tackles, got the award for the biggest hit as well as the prize for the player with the highest work rate.
Of course, one game is not enough to lay the ghosts of the last 5 years to rest, but it seems that finally his supporters for once can point to some cold hard facts of a performance on the park, where it mattered most and where he was up against the very best, and delivered. More importantly, it shows how important actual game time is for any player and hopefully, Chiliboy will be afforded much more in weeks to come.
Perhaps, just perhaps, after 5 years of promise, Chiliboy might just have announced himself to South African supporters as having finally arrived…