Kolbe small in stature but a giant in green and gold
On Cheslin Kolbe, who scored a sensational try in the final against England, he said: “Cheslin Kolbe has a beautiful story as well - he’s been told that he can’t make it so many times, and he fought against that. And now he is one of the best players in the world.”
A big part of Kolbe’s fight to the top has been his size - 1.70m and 80kg - which many coaches felt was not enough to excel on the international stage.
But Rassie Erasmus had seen enough of the hot-stepper from Kraaifontein in his renaissance at Toulouse in France, and Kolbe recalled the moment that the Bok coach told him he would be making his Test debut against Australia in 2018.
“The first time I met coach Rassie was in a lobby in Australia. He asked me, ‘How are you feeling?’, and I said ‘I’m good, Coach. No injuries, I’m happy to go’. And he told me ‘Okay listen, you are on the bench for the weekend’,” Kolbe told Independent Media with a beaming smile in Berlin this week.
“I was like, ‘Okay, thank you so much’. And then I had a one-on-one, and he said I don’t know much of the structures, so he doesn’t expect me to know everything. He told me to just go out on the field and play my rugby, because they know I can play rugby.
“I just went on to the field and made sure I did my best. The freedom has been there for me and I really appreciate that, because you can easily get boxed into a system.”
Kolbe has certainly been let out of that box at French club Toulouse. He left the Stormers and Cape Town in 2016 probably a bit disillusioned, having been ignored by his franchise coach of several years, Allister Coetzee, for the Boks, and being limited and shifted around in Super Rugby as well.
He is too nice a guy to ever admit that in public - even going so far as to say that he “always had the freedom” at the Stormers, and that he was told by coaches to be himself and “play what’s in front of you”.
But the change since his move to France has been visible. Cape rugby fans always knew he possessed the dynamic skill that saw him score that stunning try in the World Cup final - it’s in his blood, being a cousin of Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk - and he is now finally able to display it for his club and country.
Kolbe is enjoying life in France with his wife Layla and daughter Kylah (aged two), and things have been going well on the pitch too. He said that club coach Ugo Mola has backed him since his debut, and that his game has grown significantly at the club as he is exposed to so many players from different countries.
He added that while French and European rugby is not as fast as Super Rugby, it is quite physical and “you have to stand your ground”.
Kolbe certainly had to do just that last Sunday, when he was asked to start at flyhalf against Racing Metro 92.
“The first carry was straight at me (clapping his hands together to indicate a collision), and I had to make the tackle!” he laughed.
“It definitely comes with playing 10: they are probably going to target you, but that’s the challenge for me, that I always get excited for - to prove people wrong not to just look down on small guys, but to also respect them in certain areas.
“Whether you are big or small, if that guy can weigh up and stick into the defence, and have the right attitude, he can achieve what he wants to and cause a lot of havoc and doubt in other things.”
Kolbe kicked superbly at goal as well, with one from near the halfway line and another from the touchline seriously impressive. He played at flyhalf for most of his school career, and a few games for Western Province and the Stormers. So, could he stake a claim for the Springbok No10 jersey in 2020?
“As I said, wherever the coach chooses me, I will play! But with Handré, Elton, Damian Willemse, there’s a lot of talent there and a lot of back-up - I’m sure that’s the last thing on my radar, to play 10. But wherever I’ll be needed ... and I have to play, I will play and just do my best.”@ashfakmohamed