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Why Chiliboy Is Hotfooting It To France

Published 8 years ago
By Forbes Africa

It is Wednesday morning and the big man is 20 minutes late for our rendezvous at an upmarket restaurant in Sandton City, Johannesburg. At 1.7 meters tall and 105 kilograms, you can’t miss him as he arrives. This is Chiliboy Ralepelle, one of the hottest properties of the rugby world.

Springbok hooker Ralepelle grins at the FORBES AFRICA crew as I wave, we shake hands as he apologizes for his tardiness.

“Sorry guys, I have miscalculated my time. These days I am a bit slow because of the back injury,” he explains.

Ralepelle inherited the nickname Chiliboy from his great-grandfather, a farm laborer famed for growing chilis. His given name is Mahlatse.

Ralepelle missed two international test matches against Argentina after he injured his back in the gym. The Springboks won 73-13 in the first encounter.

“I would have loved to have been part of that feast,” he says.

It is a sad reality that Ralepelle and half of the South African national team will soon no longer be feasting in Africa, after Japanese, Australian and European clubs lured 22 players abroad.

Among the Springboks that will be missed at home in 2014 are Ralepelle, Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, Andries Bekker, Wynand Olivier, JP Pietersen, Heinrich BrÜssow, Meyer Bosman and Mornè Steyn.

All are expected to double, or even triple, their earnings. South Africa’s big spenders, the Stormers and the Blue Bulls, cannot compete.

Most of these players will be claimed by Top 14 clubs in France. According to French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, 30-year-old winger Habana, is the third highest paid player in France, taking $66,000 per month. Habana’s Toulon teammate Jonny Wilkinson is the highest earner with $74,000, followed by Racing Metro’s Jonathan Sexton on $68,000.

The 27-year-old Ralepelle will double his earnings in France and Toulouse will also pay for his accommodation and car.

However, it is more than mere money that led Ralepelle to break his decade-long stint with the Blue Bulls to join Toulouse for the next three years.

“Toulouse is one of the most successful clubs in the world. It is a privilege to be part of such a prestigious and unified team. I will be able to improve certain aspects of my game there. I fell in love with Toulouse when I spent time training with the team, and realized that was what I wanted for my rugby career,” says Ralepelle.

In France, Ralepelle, an avid FORBES AFRICA reader, will follow his entrepreneurial spirit. He says that while the rest of his teammates listen to music on flights, he reads the magazine for business inspiration.

“I can’t really say I am the jack of all trades. I am young and I need a feel for everything before deciding what kind of business will be good for me. I am currently involved in mining and construction and I have a few properties,” he says.

With a keen interest in business, Ralepelle naturally has some thoughts on how South African rugby should be run.

“South African rugby is professional, but not as professional as it should be. The clubs are not as successful as overseas clubs. They need to be privatized like our Premier Soccer League. The soccer league has been attracting international players because of its success. I think individual business people can run our rugby better,” he says.

Ralepelle, who is learning French, will be joined at Toulouse by Blue Bulls teammates GurthrÖ Steenkamp and Jano Vermaak, as well as his younger brother Ngoako, who has signed a three-year contract with the club’s academy.

The first black Springbok captain says he won’t lodge with his 19-year-old brother, who played as a flanker for the Blue Bulls academy.

“I advised him to stay with the academy so that he can focus more on his own game and studies.”

Ralepelle dispels the talk that Ngoako rode into Toulouse on the family name. He does not, however, deny having a discussion with Toulouse management about his brother.

“Ngoako went through trials and was successful because the talent scouts liked what they saw. Two to three years there and he could be a Frenchman,” says Ralepelle.

“Politics in rugby in South Africa makes life very tough. It’s not for the faint-hearted. He is not as strong as I am, I won’t allow him to go through the same struggle I had experienced in my career. As the elder brother I wanted the best for him,” he adds.

Across racial lines Ralepelle’s rugby career has been criticized, with some referring to him as a quota player who was only selected for the national team because of his race.

Ralepelle was born in Hazyview, in northern South Africa, was raised by his soccer playing father Peter.

“Before my dad could turn professional, he had an injury as he was preparing for Orlando Pirates trials. As we grew up we all played street soccer with friends. My position was left back,” he says.

Ralepelle fell in love with rugby at Pretoria Boys High and soon realized he was good at it.

“I broke away from the family [soccer] tradition to play rugby, but that was the hardest thing to accept for my parents. My mum thought the sport was very aggressive.”

At 16, Ralepelle started training with the Blue Bulls. At the same age, Ralepelle played at the Under-18 Craven Week in 2002. He was the youngest player in the tournament.

“It was the blessings of the man upstairs and a bit of luck, I got a surprise call to join the Under-18s Craven Week squad, three hookers were injured and I was pulled out of the Under-16 team. My junior rugby was great, free of injuries. It was the most amazing time. I was voted the world rugby junior player of the year when I played for the Baby Boks.”

Four years later, Ralepelle was playing Super Rugby and had earned his Springbok colors. He also captained the Baby Boks to the Under-21 world title that season.

Under World Cup-winning coach Jake White, Ralepelle became the youngest Springbok to play against the World XV in 2008.

A spate of injuries then threatened his career, but he came back strongly in the 2011 Super Rugby competition and earned a place in the World Cup squad.

There is talk that the present national coach, Heyneke Meyer, dislikes Ralepelle. Since Meyer took over, Ralepelle has seen little game time. But Ralepelle would not be drawn on the issue.

“With Heyneke, we have an open book relationship. I understand he can’t please everyone, including me. When I get a chance, I have to play very hard and hope to impress the coach.”

He has much to look forward to.

“My focus and energy is with rugby now, but I have some business interests on the side that I will have to pursue when I am done with the sport. I want to enjoy my rugby at Toulouse and be the best I can be. Keep focussed,” says Ralepelle.

So, the harsh European winter awaits one of the most powerful rugby players Africa has produced. If the going gets tough, at least he has his own flesh and blood, Ngoako, close at hand for a chat.

And who knows, with Chiliboy’s guidance, Ngaoko could be playing for France at the 2019 World Cup.

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Related Topics: #Chiliboy Ralepelle, #Hooker, #October 2013, #Rugby, #Springbok.