The former Springbok who received most of the backlash following South Africa’s heaviest defeat contemplated quitting the sport afterwards. He explains how he got over the period to become a sensation in France.
Doubt is an insidious thing. It oozes across the mind like lava, biding its time as it incinerates whatever belief once existed in its place. Friedrich Nietzsche said that doubt is a sin. William Shakespeare called our doubts traitors. Sylvia Plath spoke from the bottomless void where her doubts had cast her: “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”
Raymond Rhule knows all about doubt. He’s owned his fair share of it, grappling with its consequences, failing to rid himself of the internal voice that told him he wasn’t good enough, that he’d never been good enough, that he’d never be good enough again.
“I was in a dark place,” he says from his home in La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay in western France. “It all begins with doubt. At one point my purpose wasn’t to express myself or to be myself. All I thought about was just not fucking up. If I ended my day not fucking up then I could maybe go to sleep free from doubt.”
Rhule is a rugby player. A good one at that. So good that in April he was nominated in the 15-man longlist vying for the European Player of the Year award for 2021 after impressive performances in his inaugural season for La Rochelle, a club with only two major trophies in its 123-year history but now challenging for domestic and continental supremacy. However, he didn’t make the cut when that list was trimmed to the final shortlist of five.
“I’m doubting myself less these days,” Rhule says. But it’s still there. That’s the thing with doubt. It never completely goes away, especially if it was brought on by such a scarring event.
Rhule sighs when our conversation inevitably reaches that night in Auckland in September 2017. New Zealand 57, South Africa 0. The All Blacks scored eight tries in a contest that lives in infamy for anyone associated with the Springboks.
Rhule played all 80 minutes. After the whistle, coach Allister Coetzee and captain Eben Etzebeth faced a press conference each with thousand-yard stares, barely comprehending the pounding they’d just taken. Both men spoke of how the group as a collective would carry the weight of their nation’s heaviest ever loss. One man copped more heat than most.
“I was blamed,” Rhule says. “In newspapers, on TV, on the radio, on social media, I was blamed. I had to turn my phone off. I was getting so much hate. Then I started getting emails. Like, how did these people even get my email address? I was told I was shit, that I didn’t deserve a rugby contract, that I was the worst player anyone had ever seen. It’s impossible to completely block it out. The people close to me saw it and I could see it was impacting them. I realised then that you lose your humanity in a way when you put on a Springbok jersey. It’s like you stop being a person.”
‘Africa is a country’
Rhule was made the scapegoat for a shocking team effort because of nine missed tackles – six more than any other Springbok and three more than the entire New Zealand backline combined. Despite commendable shifts across the six preceding Tests, including a try against Argentina in a 37-15 win in Port Elizabeth, this abject display was enough to brand Rhule, in his own words, “a pariah of South African rugby”.
Coetzee’s strategy at the time didn’t help. In what was known as the “rabbit”, a lone runner, usually a winger, would chase down long range kicks to exert pressure on the opposition’s relieving kicker or ball carrier. The goal was to force a turnover in a dangerous area of the field or to rush the return kick for a territorial win. If the rabbit missed his tackle, the supporting line would provide cover from behind.
The plan worked until New Zealand stationed the 1.96m, 113kg Liam Squire as a de facto fullback who simply brushed aside the 1.80m, 88kg Rhule. Whenever Squire was preoccupied somewhere else on the field, long range kicks were collected by Damien McKenzie or Nehe Milner-Skudder, two of the most electric sidesteppers in the game. Rhule holds his hand up and concedes that he let himself and his teammates down, but he feels important information was lost in the narrative.
“No one bothered to ask why it was so tough, or if the game plan had anything to do with it,” he laments. “It was easier to paint this picture. I carried that anxiety with me for a long time. That’s why I had to get away. I needed to leave South Africa. If I stayed I might have walked away from the game completely.”
Not that Rhule was ever anchored to Africa’s southern tip. He was born over 7 000km north in Accra, Ghana where he lived until he was six. His mother, Blessing, is half-Ghanian and half-Nigerian, while his father, Raymond, has a bloodline connected to the Ivory Coast. Rhule sees himself as a citizen of a continent.
“Identity is a strange thing,” he muses, “especially when you become a professional athlete and start representing a country. Africa is a country, really. But you need a passport to go from South Africa to Lesotho, which is strange. I’m not possessive of my culture but I’m proud of it and I’m always keen to speak with people about West African food or music.”
This is a new development. In 1999, Rhule and his mother left Accra to join his father in East London where he had gained a foothold as a hairdresser with his own salon. The marriage didn’t survive. Raymond Snr. moved to Cape Town. Blessing and her son relocated to the small town of Bultfontein about 100km north of Bloemfontein.
“I was conscious not to stick out,” Rhule says of those early years in the Free State. “I was much darker than all of my classmates. I couldn’t speak Afrikaans and had to learn quickly as all my lessons were in Afrikaans. My mom opened her own hair salon and I’d spend most afternoons and weekends helping out, plaiting hair, relaxing hair, doing what was needed. It was difficult at first. I was aware that I was a foreigner. I was conscious not to overplay that or speak too much. I never experienced direct xenophobia but it was always there, beneath the surface. I just wanted to fit in.”
Racism in Bloemfontein
There is no need for spoken words on the sports field, especially when one has talent. Back in East London, the young Rhule had developed into a prolific striker in football. Were it not for passport issues, he may have accepted a scholarship to the Johannesburg private school St Benedict’s. But when he arrived in Bultfontein there were no round balls or goals in sight.
He’d never seen rugby posts before. “They looked so alien to me,” he recalls. He therefore stuck to athletics until a move to Bloemfontein as a boarder at Louis Botha High School meant he could no longer avoid the oval ball.
At his first ever practice, and under instruction from a friend in the know, he told his coach that he was a lock. Seconds after running rings around his peers the coach put him right.
“My mom never liked the sport and I had to play behind her back,” Rhule explains. “But I did it anyway. I was addicted. I was good at it. I could earn respect with the ball in my hand.”
Respect among his teammates, perhaps, but there were nasty incidents when playing rival schools in the area. Louis Botha is a predominantly Black school and a few parents with antiquated views grew hostile watching Rhule bulldoze his way past their offspring.
“I received some racist abuse at times,” he remembers. “Occasionally our principal had to stop a few games. I couldn’t understand it. The social history of rugby, its significance to the country, I wasn’t aware of any of that at school.”
Those history lessons would have to wait. Rhule was too busy accelerating through rugby’s pyramid. He attended the University of the Free State in 2012 and enrolled in an undergraduate law programme. Really he was there to play rugby, which he did for Shimlas’ Under-20 side in his freshman year. When current Lions winger Jamba Ulengo was injured, Rhule was called up to Shimlas’ first team to play in the Varsity Cup.
In April that year he made his debut for the Cheetahs against Western Province in the final round of the Vodacom Cup. Springbok Under-20 scouts were in attendance and invited him to train with Dawie Theron’s side even though it had already been selected for the upcoming World Cup. It didn’t matter. Room was made for Rhule and in June he scored two tries against Argentina in the semifinals and played against New Zealand a week later, helping the Baby Boks to a 22-16 triumph in the tournament’s showpiece.
When Bryan Habana busted his knee in the Currie Cup final, Heyneke Meyer had room for one more outside back for the end-of-year tour to Europe. Rhule got the call personally from the Springbok coach. In the space of just a few months, he had catapulted from the Shimlas’ Under-20 side to the highest echelon of the game.
He didn’t directly contribute to any of the Springbok wins over Ireland, Scotland or England, but he absorbed everything he could while carrying tackle bags. “Watching JP Pietersen in training showed me just how much I still needed to learn,” he says. “The way he covered the ground was astounding. His game awareness was on another level.”
Five years would pass before he got his chance with the Springboks, though he’s not bitter. “I was just raw talent at that stage,” he says. When his opportunity finally came, a new coach was in charge and he had his own views on how to use his fleet-footed winger.
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For a while it paid off. A clean sweep of France at home in 2017 and a trio of unbeaten games in the Rugby Championship suggested that perhaps Coetzee had ironed out the deficiencies that saw his side lose eight of their 12 fixtures in 2016. It also suggested that Rhule belonged at this level. Then he ran into the All Blacks. Like a rabbit caught beneath the wheels of a car, the young man’s sense of self was obliterated.
He moved to the Stormers in the hopes of reigniting his career, but doubt had become an ever-present companion. “My whole life I had played on instinct,” he explains. “Now I was overthinking it. I could play the game of my life but if I missed one tackle that’s all anyone would talk about. I started second- guessing myself.”
Rhule managed to convince his Stormers coach, Robbie Fleck, that a move abroad was needed. With a year left on his contract, Rhule was bought by the French club Grenoble on the foothills of the Alps.
The setbacks kept coming. Grenoble were relegated from the Top 14. But unlike previous mishaps, this one did not derail Rhule. Like Squire had done to him, he brushed it off and learned to love his game again, earning a place in the team of the year in France’s second division. It was on the back of these performances that the legendary Irish flyhalf Ronan O’Gara, head coach at La Rochelle, enticed Rhule to join an expansive project on the Atlantic coast.
Under O’Gara, Les Maritimes have set European rugby on fire. By implementing a philosophy simply known as “Keep Ball Alive”, Rhule and his teammates are just one point behind Cheslin Kolbe’s Toulouse who are in first place and whom they meet in the Champions Cup final on Saturday 22 May. With the world lifted from his shoulders and placed back at his feet, has Rhule contemplated a Springbok return?
“I honestly don’t know,” he says, sounding less confident than he has throughout our call. “I know I’m not an easy pick. It would take a brave coach to bring me in and block out the noise that would follow. I don’t think many coaches would want that extra pressure in the team.”
There it is again. Rhule will likely never completely shake off that insecurity. He’s come to accept that. Because though he may hold some reservations about his future, he is no longer burdened by doubt.