Springbok superstar Cheslin Kolbe is a product of his choices, not his circumstances, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Cheslin Kolbe once doubted he had a future in the game. Briefly, as some critics continued to suggest he was too small to make it big as a professional rugby player, he considered calling it quits.
It puts his current status into stark perspective, particularly bearing in mind that many experts now view him as the leading player in world rugby.
In 2019, he was a nominee in the official World Rugby Player of the Year category, losing out to Springbok teammate Pieter-Steph du Toit. And if the 2020 calendar hadn’t been decimated by Covid-19 disruptions, there is every chance he would have been a prime candidate to claim that accolade, considering his form has barely wavered whenever he’s had the opportunity to run out for French club Toulouse.
As Kolbe puts it, the rugby field is still his ‘playground’. And the game his ‘escape’.
Kolbe’s Springbok heroics in recent times — headlined by his stunning try in the 2019 World Cup final — have sent his profile skyrocketing, but he is still just a kid at heart: rugby is a jol, there to be played for the pure enjoyment of it, and to maximise his ‘God-given gifts’.
‘Whenever I go out on to that field I go into some sort of bubble and focus. Whatever’s on the outside, I block that out and just focus on what needs to be done between those four white lines and try to deliver for my teammates …
‘I always say that if I can make a positive contribution to whichever team I play for, I’m happy. The moment I stop having fun, the moment that smile disappears, that will probably be the time to say I’m done with the game.’
Kolbe’s infectious love for rugby is no different to when he was growing up in the Cape Town suburb of Kraaifontein, and when reflecting on that upbringing, Kolbe smiles as he tells SA Rugby magazine how his life-changing love for sport first took shape.
‘The memories from my childhood are still fresh in my head and it reminds me every day when I’m training how far I have come, and what I’ve had to do to get here. But I can still picture myself, as that young boy, running around and playing sport in the streets, basically just wanting to have a ball in my hand.’
Kolbe laughs when describing how before heading to bed as a kid he’d sometimes blow up a balloon as a makeshift rugby ball, while setting up pillows as would-be ‘defenders’.
It was during those days that a young Kolbe began to hone his side-stepping skills. ‘Even then I was just visualising myself being a Springbok,’ he says.
And yet that was easier said than done. Gangsterism and the drug trade were rife in the community, something that led to frightening first-hand experiences such as once finding himself dangerously close to being caught in the crossfire, and literally having to run for his life.
‘If it wasn’t for sport I wouldn’t be where I am,’ Kolbe says. ‘I would probably have become one of the victims, making the wrong decisions. Sport, and rugby in particular, guided me in the right direction and helped me make wise decisions. At the same time, it has taught me so much about discipline and working hard for what you want.
‘My dad was also a very good rugby player and someone I have really looked up to. When he trained, I’d be kicking a ball around, practising my side-stepping and picturing myself becoming a professional rugby player.
‘Also in those early days, [former All Blacks legend] Christian Cullen was someone I really admired as a player and who motivated me to lay out my own journey. I overcame the challenges of my community — gangsterism, drug abuse, poverty — but I honestly wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
‘Seeing people making bad decisions and going down the wrong course taught me so much and gave me that little bit more hunger to achieve the things I wanted in life.’
It’s such a humble upbringing that has also shaped Kolbe’s outlook on life. Nothing is taken for granted. His enduring philosophy is still to find ways to give back to the community, as when he spent lockdown back in South Africa last year, joining projects that assisted those in need.
‘I want to create as much awareness as possible and show people what can be achieved, no matter what circumstances they may have grown up in or experienced. I know I have a responsibility to set a good example and use whatever platform I have to make meaningful contributions where I can.’
Having said that, Kolbe readily admits he is still a ‘shy guy’ at heart and the spotlight that has come with his Springbok stardom has required some getting used to.
‘I’m a very quiet guy who doesn’t like to talk too much, but I’ve also learned that you have to put yourself out there, to express where you’ve come from and what your mission is in life because it can help others.’
It’s partly why Kolbe no longer shies away from conversations around coping with past criticism. The 27-year-old admits, back when he desperately sought to make his way in the game, that he found it challenging to escape the preoccupation around his size in a South African rugby environment filled with towering physical specimens — even among the backs.
Having been schooled at Hoerskool Brakenfell and trying to make a name for himself at the youth weeks, he faced persistent questions from those who doubted he would make it to the highest level of the game.
‘From U12 level and going through Western Province trials, I’d struggled to make it. When I went to the U15 trials, I made it to the second round and then I was told the same thing I was told when I was just starting: basically that I wouldn’t be able to get into professional set-ups because I’m just too small, I’m just a laaitie and I wouldn’t be able to compete against the big guys.
‘It was 2008 and I wanted to give up. But my dad gave me good advice – perfect advice – to motivate me, not to force me into anything, but to just keep doing what I loved. And at that time I was in love with rugby, but I was being put down all the time because of people doubting me and obviously just giving me negative feedback.’
Yet, opting to rather turn that negativity into motivation, Kolbe would wake up in the early hours of the morning to go to gym before school, and began to spend more and more time training on the rugby field. Time with friends and going to parties was sacrificed to pursue his rugby dream, to ensure his talent never went to waste.
But even when Kolbe broke through to play for Western Province and the Stormers, questions about his size persisted whenever he missed a tackle or came off second-best in a collision. However, in hindsight, and in the context of Kolbe’s current status in world rugby, his move to Toulouse was the game-changer.
No longer in an environment where the focus revolved around his physical stature, he rekindled his love for the game and endeared himself to coaches, teammates and fans in France who admired his flair and fighting spirit.
The only ones who perhaps weren’t as happy were the opponents who regularly found themselves tied in knots trying to make a tackle on the sidestepping dynamo.
‘I think that once you have walked down a tough road and had to prove yourself to people all the time, that’s when you enjoy those little victories,’ he smiles.
Such a comment is typically understated, though. There has been nothing ‘little’ about his achievements since earning a call-up to the Springboks in 2018.
His dream World Cup campaign led to the nomination for the 2019 World Rugby awards, and he was soon joining Bok captain Siya Kolisi as a member of powerhouse sports agency Roc Nation.
‘Since I’ve joined up with Roc Nation, I’ve become a more relaxed but more outspoken person because of the background and the people I’m working with. I’m really pleased to have an amazing team supporting me on and off the field, and there’s so much good work we’re looking to do.
‘I want to try to use my platform to give back in whatever way possible, whether it’s about sharing my experiences, outreach work, or just going back into the community to remind them of the opportunities to succeed in life.’
There’s also still plenty that Kolbe wants to achieve on the field. The dynamic wing dreams of helping Toulouse clinch the European Champions Cup, while he’s naturally desperate to form part of a winning Bok team against the British & Irish Lions.
Another World Cup and Springbok Sevens representation at the Olympics are also all on the ‘dream’ to-do list.
And although the Springboks have yet to return to action since the 2019 World Cup, Kolbe has consistently captured the headlines almost every time he performs at club level. How has he managed to maintain such form?
‘I think the bigger picture is, “Why I am I doing this? Why do I go out on the field?” It’s because I love it, I enjoy it,’ he says. ‘I’m so grateful to still have the opportunity to do what I love.
‘So many people have been through such a difficult time during the pandemic, from the loss of life to the loss of their livelihoods. I’m just so grateful to still be able to play this game, to have a happy and healthy family, and hopefully I can inspire others or at least put a smile on their faces through my performances.’
SPEED RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Cheslin Kolbe’s cousin is none another than Olympic gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk.
‘It’s just incredible what he’s achieved over the past few years and is still going to achieve,’ Kolbe says. ‘He’s definitely got the speed out of all of us in the family, although we were really competitive at a young age, racing each other, seeing who’s more skilful. That was us every day, in the streets having fun, doing what we could do, living and breathing with a rugby ball in our hands.’