Scrumhalf Embrose Papier, unlucky not to make the Springboks’ 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, is starting to show the kind of quality that prompted John Mitchell to label him as a potential world-class No 9.
Papier’s debut Bok season (2018) and quite possibly his worst to date (2019) in his fledgling career are like night and day.
He ended 2018 with high praise from SA Rugby’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, capped off by two back-to-back starts against Scotland and Wales in the end-of-year tour and seven Bok caps in total.
Against Scotland at Murrayfield in particular, Papier, then just 21, complemented flyhalf Handre Pollard in such seamless fashion that it wasn’t fathomable he would miss out on Bok selection for the World Cup the following year. And yet, despite all the promise, sparkling pace, composure shown with each step up a level, Papier’s career stalled last year.
New Bulls coach Pote Human had to juggle three promising scrumhalves, Boks Papier and Ivan van Zyl as well as Andre Warner.
Papier was decidedly last in that pecking order and once Warner hit form, he became difficult to unseat. As happens in elite sport, someone else usurped the opportunity left open by Papier’s game time deficiency and loss of form: Stormers sensation Herschel Jantjies.
Although he started this year on the back foot once again, playing second fiddle to Van Zyl, Papier has shown enough in his starts against the Jaguares, Highlanders and Reds that he is on track to reclaiming his place in the national team.
Maybe the realisation that nothing is guaranteed in professional sport gave him the wake-up call he needed to get back to his best. Maybe the Bulls’ results – a string of four losses to start the Super Rugby season – forced Human to try to find something new.
Whatever it was, it worked to get the 22-year-old back on the national radar once again. Papier has reinvigorated his game. He is no longer playing it “safe” in the hope that he won’t make mistakes that will cost him a place in the Bulls team.
Against the Highlanders at Loftus a few weeks back, in the game where the Bulls have shown the most daring, which remains their only victory this season, Papier was the first one to lay down a marker.
He veered from the script and went on a solo break early in the contest that left the Highlanders defenders scrambling and gasping for air. Although that move didn’t yield results, it gave Papier the confidence to play his natural game.
The more quick ball he got and delivered, the better it was for flyhalf Manie Libbok to get the backline going and the result was a six-try 38-13 demolition of the visiting Kiwis.
Papier bottled that confidence and took it to Brisbane where he came onto the field and swung first, hitting the Reds with an early score that, again, prompted the Bulls to play some sumptuous rugby. A sign that his confidence coming back? You bet.
Papier can look back at his tapes with a knowing nod that the way he played in recent weeks should bring him back into the Test fold to rub shoulders with Faf de Klerk, Jantjies or Cobus Reinach.