Opinion / 13 October 2019, 2:40pm / clinton van der berg
How do you prefer your rugby players?
Maybe you like them boasting tree-trunk thighs like Tongan prop Ma’Afu Fia. Perhaps you favour 2,08m lighthouse Rory Arnold of Australia. If you like them hard and heavy, how about Ben Tameifuna, also of Tonga, who tips the scales at a meaty 153kg?
But if your tastes are more refined, leaning towards speed and skill and guile, you couldn’t do better than Cheslin Kolbe, South Africa’s supernova.
The World Cup has been the Springboks’ coming out party. We’ve all had some idea of his outrageous skills, but he was often bottled up at the Stormers and it was difficult to tell just how good he was when he was blitzing the opposition at Sevens.
It was only when he decamped to Toulouse two years ago that he burst into full bloom.
Dispatches out of France were always glowing, but then followed the YouTube clips on social media. He didn’t merely evoke memories of Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the brilliant (but under-achieving) Fijian, who scorched the opposition.
Kolbe’s stepping game was so good, he embarrassed top defenders, who were left chasing shadows.
There’s little doubt his repertoire developed in France, where the rugby is more attritional and out-and- out pace is often stymied by the conditions.
He has also proven to be a marvellous counter to rugby’s growing obsession with size and musculature. This preoccupation is something Kolbe never understood, always backing his ability to find space over any attempt to stampede over defences. His attitude speaks to both his inherent athleticism and his cerebral instincts.
Kolbe is fortunate that his effervescence wasn’t compromised by that cursed SA label - “utility back” - that hindered players like Brent Russell and Curwin Bosch, also smaller players, seemingly too good for their own good.
If rugby was down to pure physics, Kolbe wouldn’t stand a chance. But he has rugby smarts in abundance, combining a white-hot attacking game with bravura aerial skills and surprisingly robust defence. In this age of super-fast line speed, his ability to shoot up quickly and wrap his opponent up in a tackle is vital to the Kolbe package.
He routinely outjumps bigger men, as he did with Italy’s Sergio Parisse, because he has the acrobatic skills to do so. He’s tough too: fear of getting smashed evidently doesn’t enter Kolbe’s thoughts.
Not many overseas-based players get a look-in at the Springboks, but Kolbe’s form had been so compelling that Rassie Erasmus’s decision to pull him in for the Rugby Championship was an easy one. Not for a moment did he ever look uncomfortable or out of place.
Kolbe is more than just a world-class player. He infuses a game with joy much as Bryan Habana once did. It’s a rare gift that you are able to evoke exhilaration among supporters whenever you touch the ball, but this is what Kolbe has conjured. He is now among the emerging stars of the World Cup, alongside names like Semi Radradra, Josh Navidi and SA-born Kotaro Matsushima (ex of the Sharks); all of whom have illuminated Japan with their heroics.
Thankfully, the Kolbe super-show ought to have a way to run yet.
A quarter-final awaits and with it the suspicion that he will be heavily involved.
South Africa may or may not win the World Cup, but King Kolbe has offered us treasures in abundance.