Interview: Chiliboy Ralepelle
SARugby.com's Ross Hastie caught up with Springbok hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle to chat about his move from the Bulls to Top 14 giants Toulouse.
A regular member of South Africa's squad for the past five years and a stalwart in the Bulls front row - where he won 69 Super Rugby caps - Ralepelle has joined the ever-growing list a stars in France and is expected to make a big impact in the la Ville Rose.
Schooled in the shadow of Loftus Versfeld, Ralepelle came up through the Bulls and national age group ranks, where he made a name for himself not only as a highly-mobile hooker, but as an outstanding leader to the point where many believed he was being groomed as the next great Springbok captain.
Although he became the first black player and the youngest man to captain South Africa in 2008, Chili's rise up the ranks hit a ceiling as he sat behind his close friend, John Smit, and the best hooker in the world, Bismarck du Plessis, in the national pecking order.
Having spent his entire career in Pretoria, the time has come to broaden his horizons.
"I saw [moving to Toulouse] as an opportunity for me to grow as player," Ralepelle told Planet Rugby in an exclusive interview.
"I've been in this system since 2006. Sometimes in life you have to break away from complacency.
"As a player I still believe I've got a lot to give to South African rugby but experiencing something new is only way I can get as much knowledge and growth as I can in the sport.
"When I look at the style of play in European rugby, it's based a lot on the set pieces. They pride themselves on the set pieces.
"What better school to go to than a world-class side like Toulouse. To grow as a player and an individual and also be part of a different winning culture."
Ralepelle is certainly in for a change in culture as the kick-first approach at the Bulls is a far cry from the famous jeu de mouvement at Toulouse.
"I always say 'adapt or die.' It's up to me to cherish the opportunity and be the best that I can be. If it means I need to be conditioned differently and sit down with the conditioning coach and work out a new plan, that's what I've got to do," he said.
"Toulouse pride themselves on keeping the ball in play and letting the ball to the work. Who wouldn't want to be part of a system like that, were you can almost be an all-rounder."
The 26-year-old will essentially be replacing another former Bulls player, Gary Botha, whose time in the south-west of France was plagued by a series of injuries. Ralepelle will link up with former team-mate Gurthrö Steenkamp.
"I had a long chat with Gary. He gave me a better view into things and how I might be able to fit in," said Ralepelle.
"That was the biggest thing for me, whether I would fit into their system. I've watched some of the recent Toulouse games and I feel I can add value to their system and help it grow."
While Ralepelle's line-out throwing is outstanding (he tops the stats in Super Rugby for finding his jumpers), scrummaging is an area of his game that set to benefit from a move to France.
"I think there is massive room for improvement [in my scrummaging]," he agreed.
"Going to the Toulouse system can only help. I'll be surrounded by world-class players."
Ralepelle's situation in the Springbok camp must be a frustration one, after seeing du Plessis return from injury to leapfrog him into the matchday squad (along with Adriaan Strauss), during the recent quadrangular series against Samoa, Italy and Scotland.
Although he turned down a Springbok contract to take up a two-year deal in Toulouse, Ralepelle insists that he has always been happy in the national set up. His value to coach Heyneke Meyer's squad has been illustrated by his inclusion in the group for this year's Rugby Championship.
"It wasn't mentioned when my move was announced but I did get offered a Springbok contract. But my decision was about wanting to break away from my surroundings, get out of my comfort zone so I could grow as player. I want to experience something new," he explained.
"I had a good chat with Heyneke. He obviously doesn't want to lose me but he agrees it's the right move for me at the right time. He believes it could add value to the team in terms of planning for the World Cup.
"I'll be playing alongside Gurthrö, so it would be good if we could form a combination, play well together and help each other.
"I've been doing a bit of studying into the way Toulouse play, going on Youtube a lot and watching the way the practice and play.
"I also had a long chat with (Toulouse and Samoa prop) Census Johnston - I actually sat next to him on the plane to Nelspruit (ahead of the Springboks Test against Samoa in June). I'm looking forward to scrumming alongside him...what a beast!"
Having turned down an offer from Toulouse earlier this year, Ralepelle was made to think twice when the four-time European champions came knocking again.
"What I respect about Toulouse is they way do things. They go hunting for the players they want, and I said to myself this opportunity might not come around again," said the hooker.
"[When they first approached] I was still indecisive about my future. But as the season progressed and I got more clarity, I asked myself a lot of questions and realised it was best to make the move.
"I've been with the Bulls since I was 16. So it was time for change, a way to challenge myself differently."
Paul Anthony, who will join the Sharks coaching staff at the end of the season, was Ralepelle's coach at Pretoria Boys High School, before becoming his age-group coach at Bulls and still the player's mentor. Ralepelle also has a close relationship with former Clermont hooker John Smit, who is a product of the same school.
"(Paul) is still my mentor. We talk daily. My relationship with John goes far beyond the relationship of 'John and Chili the rugby players.' John was one of the guys that helped my fees at Pretoria Boys so he's played a major role in my career since the start," explained Ralepelle.
"He has also become a mentor in my life, giving me help and guidance where needed off the field. John's stint in Clermont didn't turn out that great but everyone's situation is different. He was married with kids while I'm going there as a single lad...I can only enjoy it."