Cape Town - Did you know that Embrose Papier made his Springbok debut as long back as June 2018?
It was in that infamous Washington DC Test against Wales, when then new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus had picked a makeshift team as he had left the bulk of his first-choice team at home to prepare for the England series.
The gamble nearly paid off, but South Africa went down 22-20.
Papier, then 21, came on to the pitch for the last four minutes as a wing in place of Makazole Mapimpi, and his stock grew throughout the year as he earned four more Test caps off the bench before earning his first start against Scotland at Murrayfield.
The Bulls halfback showed his class in that match, with one memorable run eventually resulting in a try to Jesse Kriel as the Boks secured a 26-20 victory. His service was snappy, and his speed across the ground was a real asset to the Bok attack, and it earned him another start in the following week’s loss to Wales in Cardiff.
So, Papier was clearly part of Erasmus’ World Cup plans, but then he battled to get game time for the Bulls in Super Rugby in 2019, which played a part in him missing out in Japan, with Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach the three scrumhalves chosen.
Now 24, the scrumhalf from Clanwilliam in the Western Cape hasn’t been part of the Bok squad since as injuries have halted his progress.
His latest problem? A damaged left big toe, which saw him having to undergo surgery in June. That kept him out of the latter stages of the Rainbow Cup SA and Currie Cup triumph in September.
Papier even spent time in an oxygen chamber during his recovery, and one of the rehab exercises was to pick up marbles with his left toes.
He has missed a lot of rugby, and made his long-awaited comeback in the United Rugby Championship clash against Cardiff in Wales – the same match in which Johan Goosen suffered a serious knee injury, although the Bulls won 29-19, with Papier playing his part in keeping the team going in the right direction alongside replacement flyhalf Chris Smith.
“It feels great to be back. It was a long, tough time to just watch the guys from the stands. But it’s great to be back,” Papier said.
“The ligaments in my big toe were totally torn off. So I saw the specialist and I was in a moonboot for a month, as he wanted to see if I would come right or not,” Papier added about his time out of the game.
“Then after a month, I went to see the specialist again, and I was out for five months with my big toe (injury).
“I think the time that I was at home (was the worst part), and I just couldn’t walk at all – it was just like lying on the couch. Also, the time that I was so alone, and it was just my family around me, and a few of my friends – many of whom are close to me.
“The other tough times were all my rehabilitation sessions, and just to stay motivated during that time.”
Papier is back on the West Coast at the moment as the Bulls enjoy their break away from the game for a few weeks, but they will be thinking long and hard about how to be successful in the United Rugby Championship.
They have suffered four defeats from five matches so far, with the latest a 30-16 loss to the Sharks in Durban.
They are scheduled to resume the United Rugby Championship campaign in Italy against Zebre on 8 January, although that may not happen due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
The 2022 Currie Cup kicks off soon after that on the weekend of 14/15 January, with the Bulls set to face the Pumas in Mbombela.
But while they won the local crown twice in 2021, the Bulls need to get up to speed in the United Rugby Championship.
“With the weather and everything of the URC that we played on tour, I think many of the teams are much more structured compared to the Currie Cup. In the Currie Cup, the game is more loose and the guys can do their own thing,” Papier said.
“It’s very structured (in the United Rugby Championship), and the No 9 and 10 must work more with their game management, and they must make better decisions.
The teams that we played overseas, they have a big emphasis on their set-piece, so the set-piece is a big deal over there.”
If Papier can help the Bulls to play a high-tempo game in the United Rugby Championship, it will also improve his chances of earning a recall to the Bok squad.
The 2023 World Cup is on the horizon, so 2022 is the time to put your hand up for selection, and working with Bulls consultant Fourie du Preez at Loftus could also give him an extra edge.
“The Boks will always be on my mind. I have signed on for the Bulls until 2024, so it is definitely something I am still looking at,” Papier said.
“Fourie has helped us a lot. He is not with us at the moment, but I am sure coach Jake (White) will bring him in at some stage again. He helped us a lot, and it was great.
“All the (Bok) scrummies are doing well. I watch all the games every weekend, and I can learn from them as well. But I am just focusing on myself and take every game step by step, and to give everything on the field.”