- Ex-Cheetahs and Stormers wing Raymond Rhule, who played seven Tests for the Springboks in 2017, talks about leaving South African rugby and his ambitions of still wearing the jersey.
- The current La Rochelle centre, who was a European Challenge Cup runner-up this season, addresses the freedom he feels to play his game in France and facing off with Cheslin Kolbe.
- He also speaks about rebuilding his battered reputation after the infamous Test against the All Blacks and how he believes he was "boxed, labelled and shipped away far too quickly."
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to leave South African rugby?
Raymond Rhule: Before my move to the Stormers, I was basically in Bloemfontein my whole life and all I knew was a big version of a small town. When I decided to leave South African rugby in 2018, I felt I had matured enough in my game to be able to head abroad and still do my thing. I would like to have stayed at the Stormers for a bit longer because it’s a great place to play but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. Moving to Cape Town from Bloem was interesting but I still enjoyed my stay there. That was the setup for me to move overseas because I reckon if I went from Bloemfontein straight to overseas it would have been a tougher transition. In hindsight, I think I needed to get away. After the (now infamous) Test against the All Blacks in 2017 I feel as though I was boxed, labelled and shipped away far too quickly. Within a South African rugby context when a team is doing well the collective is praised but when a team is doing badly they know where to point out individuals. As a person, you live and you learn. I think I had to learn the hard way. Back in 2017, players didn’t really have any platform to get their messages across. Outside of what people wrote or said about you as a player, no one really knew what was going on. Social media has now afforded players more of a voice but four years ago if players were outspoken they were seen as a distraction.
Sport24 asked: Do you feel freer to express yourself in France?
Raymond Rhule: I won’t lie; the French lifestyle has rubbed off on me. It’s a cool place to live and it’s a whole different environment. One of the nice things about being in France is that as long as you perform on the field you can do whatever you want in your own time. In South Africa, I wouldn’t say there is a stigma attached to it but they expect you to fit a certain mould and if you don’t you are shipped out very quickly… It’s been cool to have Dillyn Leyds at La Rochelle. We have played together many times and our games just complement each other. The on-field link up just works and I don’t really know how to explain it. If you see rugby the same way it eliminates decision-making time and gives you better flow and rhythm to everything you do. It’s pretty cool that Dillyn’s here and we view the game in the same way. Having first played together for the Junior Springboks in 2012, we have been around the block and our games have really matured. From a team front, it was heart-breaking to lose the European Champions Cup final to Toulouse but it’s very true in terms of what was said about us going on a great run. We honestly wished that things worked out differently and it was a fair fight. On the day we didn’t win the cup but I believe we gained plenty of supporters.
Sport24 asked: Do you reckon you’ve raised your playing levels?
Raymond Rhule: I feel I have been playing good rugby since I have been here and it’s just that there is now a bit more of spotlight on it. Season-in and season-out, especially on attack, I have always been doing my thing but now I reckon it’s been a little more recognised. It’s all well and good but I pride myself on having my own standards and keeping to that. I take a lot of pride in my game in making a difference either on attack or defence. I went through a stage where there was a lot of self-doubt and it took a while to get over it but I’m on the mend. The transition to La Rochelle was way better because they play the type of rugby that I enjoy and it suits my strengths. That helped a lot and the nice part about it is that it’s become winning rugby. The KBA (Keep Ball Alive) philosophy is about putting yourself in the best place to make a play and backing yourself when you need to do it. The key is to keep the pressure on the opposition with ball in hand... I currently have a two-year deal with La Rochelle and after that I am not sure what my playing future holds. But anyway I’m enjoying myself here, so we will have to see. As a team collective, we definitely have ambitions of winning both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup. As a squad we put that as our goals coming into the new season – it’s tough that we couldn’t get over that initial hump but have a second bite at the cherry.
Sport24 asked: Do you still harbour Springbok playing ambitions?
Raymond Rhule: I most definitely want to add to my seven Test caps for the Springboks. I believe there is no boy that grows up watching rugby or wanting to play for the Springboks that will just call time on his international career unless father time calls it for you. If you are still willing and able then you will always still want to play for the green and gold. However, no one from the Springbok management team has been in contact with me. Selection is not up to me and I can only do what I can on the field. To be honest, just being in somewhat of the conversation is good enough for me. A year ago, if anyone were to have mentioned Raymond Rhule and Springbok jersey in the same sentence everyone would have been like, “What the #S&! for?” Now people have come around to the idea again and that on its own shows that I have regained a lot of people’s respect. Obviously after that Rugby Championship game against the All Blacks, I lost a lot of respect from spectators and whoever else. I think I have managed to gain some of that back, so that is pretty cool. It’s not to say that I play for the fans’ affirmation but, as a player, you still want to be praised for what you do.
Sport24 asked: Are you now settled in the centre position?
Raymond Rhule: The funny thing is that I have always played like a centre and I have never been the conventional type of wing that would stay on the side and be given the ball. I’m more of a creator than anything and that is the one thing that was highly misjudged during my time in South Africa. Over there they expect the wing to just be scoring and I wanted to make the pass instead. Back then it wasn’t as valued as it is now. I have always played like that and it’s just that I now have a different number on my back. All my junior rugby I played at centre – at school and under-19 and under-21 level
and I only started playing wing for the Junior Springboks and at senior level rugby. In terms of the Springboks, the midfield options in the form of Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Jesse Kriel, Wandisile Simelane and Frans Steyn offer a great mixture. It allows Jacques Nienaber’s men to approach the game in so many ways. It just depends on who you playing on the day and what type of approach you want to take. It’s a great mixed bag of talent, so they will go well in the Lions series.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Cheslin Kolbe’s meteoric rise?
Raymond Rhule: I’m happy the way things have worked out for him. I remember chatting to a couple of people in terms of how sad he was about leaving the Cape and not knowing how it was going to work out. I don’t think he regrets leaving now and he has paved the way for many players. Cheslin has made them realise that they can actually go overseas, do their thing and still be in contention for Springbok selection. Chessie is special and I have always known that that was the case. I just think back in Super Rugby guys were way more cautious of him knowing what he did and in France he surprises everyone til today. He is amazing but I think some people still underestimate him. Most players want to smash him but they never get it right. He is quick, powerful and also very strong in contact. I surely think it’s going to be Cheslin and Makazole Mapimpi on the wings for the Springboks against the British & Irish Lions in the first Test. They are tried and tested and fit into the system. It’s a system that has been winning on a consistent basis. I don’t see any reason to change.
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