England in SA
Aplon’s most crucial Test yet?
Cape Town - If Gio Aplon wants to finally settle into a Springbok starting line-up, after 16 prior in-and-out sort of caps for his country, Saturday in Port Elizabeth could serve as a definitive match for him.
The swerving, slippery Stormers player was predictably, refreshingly confirmed on Wednesday as the third different fullback for South Africa in as many weeks for the third Test against England there, considering the injuries that have laid low first Zane Kirchner and now Pat Lambie.
Apart from the obvious fact that their misfortune affords him an unintended window of opportunity - and how often haven’t circumstances like these been the making of top sportspeople? - he also now has a golden chance to allay the fears of at least one Doubting Thomas: the very man who gave him the nod for Saturday, Heyneke Meyer.
It is no secret that the new national coach almost certainly has Aplon no higher than No 3 in his normal pecking order for the last line of defence (it might even be four, because he is also still pretty partial to what Frans Steyn offers there) partly through physical considerations.
Meyer certainly isn’t only thinking in pack terms when he talks of his desire for muscular, unyielding men in his mix - a key prong to his philosophy of “thoroughly subdue, then penetrate” which has already yielded some decent fruit in this series.
With his tale of the tape (1.75m, and 80kg on a good day) conspicuously inferior to some of the specimens around him in rugby, it is probably fair to say that Aplon is a victim of some conscious or subconscious prejudice in Meyer’s mind.
But the coach cannot be accused of any special stubbornness or inflexibility, either, so the possibility that he can be coaxed out of initial thought should not be discounted: a compelling, and suitably stout game from Aplon this weekend could, thus, do wonders for him.
Stormers enthusiasts and also no shortage of neutrals are adamant, and frankly with good reason, that Aplon himself hardly regards his relative lack of tonnage as an obstacle to his game, which is a good start.
Nor is there glaring cause to call his defensive commitment or technique into question: the Hawston-born back-three wizard is not afraid to dirty his shorts or jersey or bring to ground unceremoniously even some of the biggest units on the park.
And if the No 15 spot is integral to Meyer’s similar insistence on a polished and influential kicking game, then Aplon again brings no discernible frailty to the party - the faithful at Newlands, in particular, can attest to the healthy yardage on many of his raking touch-finders.
But it’s primarily as a ball-in-hand attacking factor, of course, that Aplon has become especially renowned. It is an enticing thought that if the Boks can get as markedly onto the front foot - and for longer periods - as they did at various stages of the Durban and Johannesburg wins, then someone with the latest fullback’s boundless flair may actually revel to an unexpected degree.
Meyer’s game-plan is unashamedly “conservative” in many respects, yes, but one thing that has been evident in both Tests thus far is that with impressive holes being punched initially by the no-nonsense forwards, Springbok backline play seems to be experiencing some sense of welcome renewal.
It is here that Aplon’s unique brand of carnage from those big, open spaces at the back could give the Boks a cutting edge they haven’t even fully contemplated is possible.
In terms of bilateral combat, England don’t know that much about him, either: he was employed as right wing on the only previous occasion he’s turned out against them, in the methodical 21-11 victory at Twickenham in late 2010.
So many of his hard yards done in the high-tempo environment of Super Rugby, you just sense that Aplon is the kind of player who, with the required on-day spring to his step and a dry surface, could prove simply too hot to handle defensively for northern hemisphere foes.
This will be Aplon’s first Bok start at fullback on home soil since the Soweto Tri-Nations Test against New Zealand earlier that same year, when Israel Dagg’s 79th-minute try broke a 22-22 deadlock and tilted the ding-dong game 29-22 the All Blacks’ way.
His last presence in a Bok run-on XV came in the 87-0 rout of Namibia at North Shore during the 2011 World Cup, albeit on the wing then, and he notched two of the avalanche of 12 tries.
Aplon turns 30 in October, so if he wants to push himself - a little against the odds, maybe - much closer to the forefront of Meyer’s plans going forward, Saturday would be a very timely occasion to sparkle indeed.
I am among those who feel it is hugely possible.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing