Cheslin Kolbe: Little man, huge presence
Playing for Toulouse in a Top 14 match against Pau back in May, Kolbe put in a shift at No 8 for an attacking scrum inside the opposition’s 22.
As the Toulouse unit steadily moved forward, Kolbe – who was theoretically playing fullback at the time - effortlessly controlled the ball at the back of the set-piece, like a specialist back-row forward would.
As the set-piece broke up, Kolbe picked the ball up, put in a characteristically sniping run, drawing in a defender, before spotting space and passing to Gillian Galan on his outside to score.
Seeing any fullback do that would qualify as a jaw-dropping moment; seeing Kolbe do it, even more so.
Remarkably enough, that unusual piece of play wouldn’t even make the Top 20 list of the finest Cheslin Kolbe moments, I’d say. And to think this is a man who left the country two years ago to play in France after it became clear that his modest physical frame wouldn’t get him more than half a look-in in the size-obsessed rugby nation that is South Africa.
Under coach Rassie Erasmus, though, it did.
When the SA director of rugby made at the time a left-field pick by naming Kolbe in his Rugby Championship squad to tour Australasia last year, many thought it to be another one of Rassie’s ‘disco-lights’ experiments. They would have figured that his imagination had run wild again.
Despite a stunner of a season with the French giants - and despite the fact that he had built a cult following for his ridiculous on-field exploits - Kolbe, after all, could still only manage to get the scale’s digits to go up to around 78kg and his 1.71cm height didn’t help either.
But he sure has repaid the Bok coach for giving him a chance, even though he should never have had any repaying to do.
He should never have felt that he had to pack his bags and swop biltong and beer for wine and baguettes in the first place.
Having been overlooked by former Springbok coaches Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, you can’t blame him for leaving for pastures new. And having been called up by Coetzee for the 2016 End of Year Tour game against the Barbarians, only to be left out of the match 23 entirely, must have been the final blow.
But when Kolbe – who possesses an on-field attitude which makes fans, and probably his teammates too, believe that nothing is too big a challenge - arrived in Western Europe, nothing about him said “Springbok reject”.
In fact, he was so good that respected French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique named him a signing of the season in their review of French recruits in 2017.
This year was no different – not only did he deliver the kind of performances that would draw a sell-out crowd had it been a solo performance, just Kolbe with the Gilbert, but he also came through when it mattered as he shined once again for Toulouse to help them secure a spot in the Top 14 play-off final.
Receiving the ball out wide with four defenders chasing him down, he stepped inside the opposition winger and rode two tackles to touch down and take the game away from La Rochelle in Bordeaux.
Nothing new there. It was again just Cheslin Kolbe doing Cheslin Kolbe things.
But it’s when he appeared in a Bok jersey that his worth really hit home, it’s when he became a part of the Bok set-up that he gave critics no choice but to sit up and watch for all the right reasons.
While we’ve become accustomed to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s Man of the Match performances, Kolbe could have easily challenged him for the award after playing an instrumental role as he chipped in with an intercept try to play more than his part in that historic Wellington win of 2018.
And in the return match against the All Blacks this year, the Olympian again did what you just wouldn’t expect a ‘small’ player to do in the 16-all draw.
That game wasn’t all about his well-known and somewhat over focused-on stepping ability. No, it was the game in which he showed that he can do more than just humiliate defenders with his feet – as Owen Franks would attest to – but he also showed his courage. The fact that he set up that stunner of a try for Herschel Jantjies was merely a bonus.
Kolbe has done the most with his chances, no doubt about that.
There is no more room for talk about his size making him a defensive liability consult Rieko Ioane on that one.
There is no more room for talk about how his frame out wide could be trouble when going up against big New Zealand or Fijian wingers. There is no more room for any talk containing an iota of doubt.
The Boks are certainly in a good space when it comes to their outside backs.
On the wing in particular, Erasmus is in the enviable position of having Kolbe, the physical and explosive Sbu Nkosi, and the ultimate finisher Makazole Mampimpi. And with everything he has between those three, Kolbe – the smallest of the three, obviously - has proven to be the most reliable high-ball taker.
Again, so much for stature stats, huh?
It’s not too uncommon to see rugby players reach the highest level while barely out of their teens, just look at guys like Frans Steyn, Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie, on a local front.
Then you get those for which it happens later, those who first have to explore alternative routes before arriving at the ultimate destination.
While it didn’t exactly happen ‘late’ for Kolbe, it certainly feels that way if you look at how deserving he’s been over many years. Heck, sometimes I have to remind myself that he’s only 25.
But the positive is that he still has many years to continue doing what he’s been doing, to surprise fans with something new from the very same Kolbe. Every. Single. Time.
So, while the 25-year-old will no doubt be thankful to Rassie for backing him, the biggest thanks should go to the man himself - for proving that size means nothing, for providing South Africans with excitement galore, for epitomising the kind of attitude we all want to see from the Boks. So thank you, Cheslin Kolbe.