Lionel Mapoe spent his 32nd birthday cramming his belongings into boxes, filling bags with clothes and wrangling with his two young children as they revelled in the mayhem of the family’s Paris apartment. For the second time in a year, the Springbok was uprooting his clan in the name of rugby.
This latest transfer, though, marks a startling shift for Mapoe from Stade Francais in the Top 14 to Stade Nicois in the newly formed Nationale, the third tier of the French game. Capped as recently as August 2018, a double Currie Cup champion and a three-time Super Rugby finalist, it marks a significant drop in standard, prestige and salary.
None of that seems to bother the South African at a time when seriously talented players are scrabbling around for contracts in a coronavirus-decimated market. “Most of the time, we take what we do for granted,” said Mapoe, the new Nicois centre/wing, to RugbyPass. “I have never found myself in a position like this before where I was worried for my family.
“At Stade, we were very happy but when the pandemic hit, the club started to cut costs. I had to dig deep and believe that I would find a club interested in my services knowing that I had only played twelve games last season. A lot of high-class players who played international rugby are struggling to find contracts at the moment. I could well have been sitting here without a job. Stade Nicois gave me that opportunity again and I’m just really thankful.”
Life in Paris was turbulent, eye-opening and invigorating all at once. Mapoe and his family absorbed a new culture and began to learn French. The rugby, though, proved desperately hard.
Don’t be so hard on yourself . pic.twitter.com/AAf96pbPt9
— Lionel Mapoe (@13LionelMapoe14) May 23, 2020
Stade wielded some terrific international players but finished dead last in the abandoned Top 14 after the grimmest of campaigns. Heyneke Meyer, the former Boks coach who signed Mapoe from the Lions last year, left in November to be replaced by two recently retired players. The team won five league games from 17, shipped 488 points and ended with a points difference of -160.
“We struggled to find our identity and how we wanted to play,” Mapoe said. “With the type of players we had, we could well have been a top-five team. I don’t think the style Heyneke Meyer wanted to play suited most of the players and the calibre of player we had. Some players weren’t happy; some weren’t playing to their full potential – including me.
“Some weekends, we changed a lot and we weren’t too consistent. It was difficult to find that identity. You can have world-class players but if you’re not all in sync, you won’t play to your potential. We have world-class players but we still ended up last.
“The potential of the group is massive. If Heyneke could have gotten us all with the same mindset towards what he was trying to achieve, we would probably have been much better off. Last place doesn’t reflect the group of players we had.”
Amid the tumult, it was brutally hard to shine. Injuries struck and Mapoe mustered only a dozen games. He never truly felt like he belonged. “You have to find yourself in a new team. I don’t think I did that in the games that I played, and I was injured in between.
“I know I’ve still got a lot of rugby in me and playing twelve games isn’t going to make me look like a superstar. Some coaches allow the players to have time to cement themselves in a team. Here, we have a lot of international players where from this week to next week, the team could change at any point. I struggled to find consistency.”
With the onset of the pandemic and the changing of coaches, the club decided not to offer him a new deal. There were options in South Africa, with the Lions particularly keen, but Mapoe looked at how coronavirus was sweeping through his homeland and thought it best to keep his family away.
Besides, he didn’t feel fulfilled. His European odyssey had been cut short and left him hungry and underwhelmed. Stade Nicois have now prolonged the Mapoe journey and will regard the Springbok as a serious coup, their marquee player among 18 pre-season recruits.
They are hugely ambitious, with designs on winning immediate promotion to the Pro D2. Mapoe’s former and new French clubs operate a partnership where young players are sent from Paris to Nice for development, easing his transition.
Scottish Rugby also invests in the Nationale club, supplying burgeoning players and coaches, and will be pleased to see its inclusion in the new third tier and yearning to go higher still. Four Scots spent last season at Nicois, with lock Hamish Bain returning to sign for Glasgow Warriors this summer.
Mapoe moved to Nicois in the idyllic south of France on Wednesday. The club have assigned an estate agent to find him a house and he is putting the family up in a hotel until they have settled on a new home. He has signed a one-year deal for now but hopes to stay longer, whether with Nicois or further up the French system.
??? MERCATO ???
Le Stade Niçois est heureux d’annoncer la signature du trois-quart centre international sud-africiain Lionel Mapoe (31 ans, 14 sélections) en provenance du @SFParisRugby.
— Stade Niçois (@stadenicois) July 10, 2020
“The mental challenge now is going to be the expectations of me from the people at Stade Nicois,” continued Mapoe. “But I have learned to handle that situation, so I don’t think it’s going to be hard for me to go down the leagues. I know for myself I just need to play to my potential to add value to the team and help the youngsters where I can. I can’t sit here and think, I’m going to a team that’s two tiers under the Top 14, so I must just relax and go for a holiday.
“I need to play to my full potential to say, listen here, it doesn’t mean I think I’m better than the next player. I need to prove to them that I am good enough to play for them. Taking a pay cut is inevitable and if you are looking for a new team, you’re not going to get your market value. That is another challenge for us, but that’s not what I set my mind on.
“That’s one thing that can derail what I’m trying to achieve. I can go down there and be negative because I’m earning less than at Stade Francais and that is going to impact my play, my family. Before I took the Nice contract, I looked at all my options and what is going to be best for the family because I need to support them. It was a no-brainer to go down to Nice, take the contract and start afresh.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now