Comment: Why playing in Japan is the right move for Cheslin Kolbe and the Springboks

Cheslin Kolbe’s move to Japan can actually benefit the Springboks. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

Cheslin Kolbe’s move to Japan can actually benefit the Springboks. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

Published Jun 9, 2023


Cape Town – Whether by design or coincidence, Suntory Sungoliath posted the news of Cheslin Kolbe joining their team at 3am South African time on Thursday.

That may have softened the blow somewhat for Stormers fans who would have been asleep when it was confirmed that the Springbok star was going to play in Japan after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Almost the whole of Cape Town would have been hoping that their prodigal son would make a fairytale return to the Mother City, having already conquered Europe by winning the Champions Cup and French Top 14 titles with Toulouse, and then the Challenge Cup with Toulon a few weeks ago.

There has been much speculation over his future in recent weeks, with reports of a possible move back to the Stormers reaching fever pitch with a supposed R15 million offer.

But Western Province Rugby and Kolbe’s wife, Layla, denied that such a deal was on the table at any stage, and now the 29-year-old has signed on the dotted line for the Japanese club.

“I’m so happy to confirm I will be joining Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the Japan Rugby League One competition after this year’s World Cup,” Kolbe said in a statement yesterday.

“This is going to be a new chapter and challenge in my career, and I’d like to thank everyone who made the move possible.

“Suntory is a team with an impressive history, and I am looking forward to making new memories with the team over the seasons ahead. To the fans, I hope to put in some performances that you can all enjoy. See you soon!”

But is it the right move?

You would think that a player in his prime would want to play at the highest level, and with Kolbe turning 30 in late October – hopefully with a second World Cup gold medal around his neck – the speedster should have continued in Japan or perhaps shifted his sights to a big club in England.

— サンゴリアス君 (@sungoliath) June 8, 2023

Going back to the Stormers wouldn’t have been a bad call either. He could have been the missing piece in John Dobson’s side when it comes to competing properly for the Champions Cup title, having won it recently with Toulouse, while being around his parents and the rest of his family in Cape Town would have also been welcomed.

Dobson is hoping to bring in a few other top-quality signings in the coming weeks as the Stormers are set to gain a private equity partner soon, so they would have been able to offer Kolbe an acceptable contract as well – although not in the region of French or Japanese clubs.

But would coming home have been the best outcome for Kolbe, and by extension, the Springbok team?

Playing in Japan allows the utility back to play competitive rugby at a lower physical intensity than in Europe or South Africa, which has been of great benefit to a number of other Boks in the Far East, such as Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Kwagga Smith.

It is no secret that part of the reason for Toulon releasing Kolbe early from his contract was due to the number of injuries he’s had in recent seasons, which has also seen him miss a number of Test matches.

Of course, there is no guarantee that he won’t get injured in Japan, while a broken jaw against Wales and an ankle problem against Italy happened on national duty.

But playing for Suntory certainly reduces the risk, while the league is of growing quality, which saw Japan reach the 2019 World Cup quarter-final on home soil, where they lost to the Boks.

Kolbe follows in the footsteps of some illustrious players to sign for Suntory, including South African legends Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger, Wallaby stars George Gregan and George Smith, as well as All Black Beauden Barrett.

Current Australian coach Eddie Jones has also been in charge of the club previously, so that’s not exactly bad company to be part of for Kolbe.

Kolbe would be in prime condition as the Japanese clubs place a big emphasis on fitness, and that can only benefit the Boks leading up to the 2027 Rugby World Cup...