Sharks hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle’s return to rugby has not been greeted with universal acclaim following his two-year ban for doping, but those who are unwilling to forgive the former Toulouse player should perhaps consider the case of high-riding Lions coach Johan Ackermann.
The former Springbok lock is just about the most popular figure in South African rugby at the moment because of the inspirational job he has done in taking the Lions from the wilderness three years ago and into this weekend’s SuperRugby playoffs, but he too was banned for two years in 1997 for nandrolone use.
Ackermann then made his return to the playing field and even returned to Test rugby in 2001. He made a second comeback in 2006, becoming the oldest player to represent the Springboks at 37 years and 34 days against Australia in July 2007 in Sydney. That record was subsequently broken last year by former Toulon star Victor Matfield, when he captained South Africa to the bronze medal in the World Cup playoff against Argentina aged 38 years and 172 days.
Interestingly, Ackermann and Ralepelle actually appeared in a Test together, back in November 2006 when the Springboks beat England 25-14 at Twickenham. Ackermann started in the number four jersey, while Ralepelle came off the bench to replace captain John Smit.
Those were the days when Ralepelle was a 20-year-old prospect, who was fast-tracked due to political pressure to include more Black African players in the Springbok team, a dozen years after Apartheid had ended. The next week, Ralepelle was named to captain the team against a World XV in Leicester, becoming not only the youngest player to captain the national team but also the first Black. Those of a more cynical disposition were sure coach Jake White, now with Montpellier, was making a statement aimed at the politicians more than anything else.
Ralepelle is not quite 30, so who knows what lies further down the road for him; perhaps he too could make an international comeback. But he is not keen to speak about the past and his indiscretion with drostanolone, an anabolic steroid popular with bodybuilders.
“I’m living a new chapter now, in a new environment. I’m excited and it’s just fantastic to be back playing rugby. I want to seize the opportunity to play the game I love,” Ralepelle told Midi Olympique this week.
Apart from the feeling that he was a political pawn, fast-tracked for reasons of window-dressing, Ralepelle has also had rotten luck with knee injuries.
One game into the 2007 SuperRugby season with the Bulls, he suffered a serious knee injury, which he injured again in the warm-ups for the 2008 campaign. He suffered further knee injuries in 2012 and in 2014 after just 16 matches for Toulouse.
Both the Bulls, based in Pretoria on the South African Highveld, and Toulouse are inland teams and, having served his ban, Ralepelle is now happy down on the coast in Durban, on the Indian Ocean.
“Durban is a lovely city, it has the best weather you could ask for, I can go to the beach any time I like!
“I had wonderful days in Pretoria, it’s where I grew up and first made my mark, and I also had a great time in France. I made great friends there, it’s a good environment and Toulouse is a great team, the home of rugby in France. It was a great opportunity and a great place to play, and I miss the culture and values of that team,” Ralepelle said.
But the Sharks have given Ralepelle a lifeline when perhaps nobody else would, thanks to Smit, who was the CEO when the hooker was signed last November, and director of rugby Gary Gold. It is not the first time the 2007 World Cup winning captain has aided Ralepelle.
Smit contributed some of the school fees to enable Ralepelle to study at Pretoria Boys’ High, which he himself attended.
Ralepelle is determined to be the author of his own success now and has clearly been working hard off the field, given the lean and mean physique he has been sporting during SuperRugby this season.
“It’s been great to get a few games under the belt and I can still improve, which is exciting. Every day I’m striving just to be more on top of my game. It’s a matter of time and it gets easier playing week in, week out. I’m not yet where I should be, but in the mean time I just want to give more and more of a contribution to the team.
“It’s important that I don’t put my body under pressure, so I worked hard before the season just to keep up with the pace of SuperRugby. I worked hard on my conditioning and I am a little lighter, which helps me to move around the park more. I can have an impact that way, it’s not just about strength because if you’re blowing after five or 10 minutes you’re not going to have much strength anyway,” Ralepelle said.
While French rugby still involves plenty of driving play and is extremely physical, SuperRugby is changing, according to Ralepelle, who returned to the Southern Hemisphere competition in April after three years away.
“There’s been a big change, mostly because of the laws. With the speed of the game, players really need to be fitter and stronger. It’s an amazing competition,” Ralepelle said.
How fortunes change in rugby is also amazing and, if Ralepelle, who remains both mobile and good in the loose as well as proficient in the set-pieces, needs any encouragement, he only needs to look at how Johan Ackermann has not only restored his reputation but has grown it exponentially.