Cape Town – One of Cheslin Kolbe’s most devastating pieces of rugby magic wasn’t even on TV.
It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in May 2013 at Newlands, and a few thousand (if that) diehard WesternProvince supporters were in the stands for a Vodacom Cup quarter-final against Griquas.
Kolbe had just been lifted dangerously off the ground before halftime, and the Griquas No 8 Leon Karemaker was lucky to get a yellow and not a straight red.
The WP fullback got up and dusted himself off, like he always does, and came back after the break to score one of the finest tries at the old ground.
Yes, it was only the Vodacom Cup, but those who were present will tell you how Kolbe received a clearing kick from Griquas close to the touchline near the halfway line, and proceeded to weave his way past a number of defenders with some dazzling footwork to score his second try of the match.
It led to WP coach John Dobson hauling out his one of his famous lines: “We’ve been talking about him all season, and if you were a trader on the Stock Exchange, you’d buy shares in Cheslin Kolbe, and you will become very wealthy.”
Unfortunately those “shares” haven’t paid out the dividends that it should have for South African rugby, and that is an indictment on the way the game is run in this country, and on Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and his predecessor Heyneke Meyer.
For Kolbe to not yet be a Bok is a reflection of the chaotic state of Coetzee’s team. He tried almost everyone at fullback – Willie le Roux, Patrick Lambie and Johan Goosen, with the latter two not even specialists at No 15.
Yet he couldn’t give Kolbe a go.
To almost exacerbate the situation, Coetzee picked Kolbe in the Bok squad for the Barbarians end-of-year tour opener, only to send him back to Cape Town without making the match-23!
Jesse Kriel was chosen at fullback and a wing in Ruan Combrinck was the back-up on the bench.
That must’ve been the last straw, and understandably so, for Kolbe as he was soon linked with a move to French club Toulouse, which has now become a reality.
Coetzee’s size-obsessed mentality has robbed the South African public of seeing someone who could’ve reignited a lacklustre Springbok backline in 2017.
For the last few years of his Stormers tenure, Coetzee reined in Kolbe’s natural instincts to attack with ball-in-hand.
Where he would normally have the Newlands faithful hold their breath in anticipation, Kolbe just punted the ball downfield as per his coach’s instructions, and it turned into a nightmare that gleefully ended upon the conclusion of the 2015 Super Rugby season.
We’ll never truly know the extent of the effect that negative style of play had on Kolbe, but the “thrill machine” from Brackenfell was far from his best in 2016 as well – having also had to concentrate on sevens rugby due to the Rio Olympics.
Still just 23, Kolbe could’ve and should’ve been a Test star by now. But that dream is in jeopardy after his move to Toulouse, probably after Super Rugby, as Coetzee and SA Rugby have already spoken about picking fewer overseas-based players going forward.
It’s a sad day to see Kolbe having to move to France to be recognised on the global scene – much like his mentor Gio Aplon, who extended his deal at Grenoble by another three years recently.
South African rugby has failed Kolbe, and Aplon for that matter. The quicker the size “discrimination” is rooted out of our game, the better. Game-breakers such as Kolbe and Aplon are not too small to play Test rugby. They’ve proven that over and over again.
But who knows, there is still a full Super Rugby season ahead. Maybe Kolbe can still convince Coetzee that he is worthy of wearing the Springbok jersey. Don’t bet on it, though…