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Champions Cup glory a just reward for forgotten Springb...

DM168

RUGBY

Champions Cup glory just reward for forgotten Springbok Rhule

La Rochelle's South African wing Raymond Rhule avoids a tackle and runs to score during the European Rugby Champions Cup, rugby union final between Stade Rochelais (La Rochelle) and Leinster at the Velodrome Stadium in Marseille, southeastern France, on 28 May 2022. (Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

After being told he didn’t fit the traditional mould, Raymond Rhule travelled to France in search of a team to challenge the status quo.

Back in 2017, Raymond Rhule couldn’t bear to log on to social media. Critics and fans were up in arms after the Springboks’ 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany and much of the fury was directed at the winger.

The South African coaching staff did little to challenge the view that one or two players were largely responsible for the Boks’ worst loss on foreign soil. After having started the first seven Tests of the 2017 season, Rhule was axed from the matchday squad.

Rhule hasn’t represented the Boks since. He sighs when he’s asked to reflect upon the Albany aberration – a watershed moment in his rugby career.

Rhule remembers leaving Bloemfontein and the Cheetahs for a new opportunity at the Stormers in 2018. He hoped for a clean slate, but found that the perceptions about his abilities – based on that one performance against the All Blacks – persisted within the Cape rugby community.

Later that year, Rhule embarked on a two-year journey with relegation-threatened Grenoble. He arrived in France with a limited understanding of the local rugby scene and culture. Though the pressure to succeed was enormous, Rhule was encouraged to express himself.

Finding his niche at La Rochelle

In 2020, La Rochelle – who had only qualified for the French Top 14 four years previously – came calling.

The coaches backed Rhule to start and to play to his strengths.

He was shortlisted for the 2021 Champions Cup Player of the Year accolade and featured prominently as La Rochelle finished as runners-up in the European Champions Cup and Top 14 tournaments.

The club continued to progress across the 2021-22 season. On 28 May 2022, Rhule scored a decisive try in the 24-21 win against Leinster in the Champions Cup final.

La Rochelle’s inaugural Champions Cup title was duly celebrated in the aftermath – with Rhule, the self-proclaimed team DJ, dragging a boom box through the change room – and in the days that followed.

The scenes in and around La Rochelle – which boasts a modest population of 77,000 – told a powerful story. Social media was inundated with images and videos of the team bus making its way round the port. An estimated 35,000 fans were on hand to pay tribute to their heroes.

In South Africa, critics and fans took the time to hail former Boks such Rhule and Dillyn Leyds, as well as former Junior Boks captain Wiaan Liebenberg, for the part they played in La Rochelle’s successful campaign.

“It was all a bit surreal,” Rhule told DM168. “Someone told me that the last time the port was that full was when La Rochelle qualified for the Top 14 back in 2014. It was a special moment for the club and all the players.”

Rhule, Leyds – a back-three bromance

Rhule speaks passionately about his club, coaches and teammates. He gives one the impression that – after a long quest for acceptance – he’s finally found a rugby family that appreciates him for his unique energy and abilities.

He is quick to give his teammates credit for the try he scored in the final. Indeed, it was Leyds who drew two defenders before completing a miracle offload. From there, Rhule cut back sharply, and then accelerated toward the tryline.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that the game doesn’t always pan out the way you want it to,” he says. “But in that final, it all seemed to click.

“There’s a lot that happens in the build-up to that try; it’s not only about me and the finish. If I had to focus on one thing, it would be the understanding that I share with my good mate Dillyn Leyds.

“We’ve walked a long road together, at the Junior Boks, the Stormers and at La Rochelle. We’re on the same wavelength; I have a good idea about what he will do next, and vice versa. So, in a game situation, we don’t have to think about things too much.”

Ronan O’Gara worked on the Crusaders coaching staff for two seasons before joining La Rochelle’s management team in 2019. The former Lions and Ireland fly-half recently replaced head coach Jono Gibbes, and has continued to challenge rugby’s status quo.

Though O’Gara boasts an intimate technical understanding of the game, it’s his connection with the players that sets him apart.

“The relationship between a coach and his players is very underrated,” Rhule explained. “Ronan has made it clear that he has confidence in my ability to execute. He doesn’t want me to overthink things when I get the ball or when I line up on defence. He just wants me to back myself to do the job.

“I’ve played under quite a few coaches over the course of my career, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned something from every one of them. Working with Ronan, however, has helped me realise I have the tools to succeed, and that I can be me rather than someone else who supposedly fits the mould.”

Surplus to Bok requirements

Is Rhule expecting a call-up to the Boks in the near future? The winger hasn’t been involved in recent alignment camps and seems at peace with his lot in France.

“I haven’t heard anything from South Africa. I can understand that different coaches have different approaches to the game, and favour certain players. Yes, there are examples of players being selected out of France when performing in the Champions Cup [Cheslin Kolbe and Rynhardt Elstadt, to name a few], but I am not expecting it. The Boks are in a good space and maybe they won’t want to fix something that isn’t broken.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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