Cheslin Kolbe has been hugely influential for a Toulouse team that has rediscovered its identity, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
There has been no second-season syndrome for Cheslin Kolbe at Toulouse. The tries might not have come as thick and fast as last season, his first in France’s ‘Pink City’, but the 25-year-old wing has evolved in other ways.
‘When you go to a new club and a new competition you usually have a good first season,’ says Kolbe, who arrived at Toulouse, a city in the south of France famous for its cuisine and the distinctive pink stone used in many of its buildings, in August 2017. ‘No one knows who you are or what you can do. Then in the second season opponents have a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses because they’ve analysed you.
‘I was aware of that, so I told myself to push myself onto another level, and for me, this season has been about more than just scoring tries. I’ve created tries for teammates and I’ve been involved more.
‘I’ve worked hard on my power in the gym and every game I make myself ready physically and mentally,’ says the 79kg Kolbe. ‘I get excited about the physical side [of the game]. I’m not afraid of it and I want to prove that each game.’
Kolbe is part of a Toulouse side that these days is a pleasure to watch. For a number of years the famous club went the same way as the national team, forsaking flair for force and panache for pragmatism. But this season Toulouse have rediscovered their artistry, and it’s hard to believe that two years ago they finished 12th in the Top 14, savaged by a media that described their rugby as ‘sterile and stereotyped’.
Asked to account for their renaissance under the coaching triumvirate of Ugo Mola, Régis Sonnes and William Servat, Kolbe says: ‘A lot of senior guys left last year and that made a big change. The coaching staff have given the younger boys not just an opportunity but also the freedom to go and show what they can do.’
And they have. Toulouse still have one or two old heads, like the veteran fullback Maxime Médard and the grizzled ex-All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino, but youth is at the heart of the squad. He may be only 25, but Kolbe is practically the old man of a backline that contains a dazzling array of young homegrown talent in Antoine Dupont, Thomas Ramos, Lucas Tauzin, Arthur Bonneval and Romain Ntamack. The eldest is Bonneval, 23, and the youngest is 19-year-old Ntamack, the precocious flyhalf who this season followed his father, Émile, in wearing the blue of France.
Such has been Toulouse’s dominance in the Top 14 this season that they clinched an automatic semi-final spot several weeks before the end of the regular season, while clinching a record-extending 20th French Top 14 title after beating Clermont 24-18 in the final at Stade de France in mid-June.
An indication of how much the club values Kolbe was the announcement last November that he has signed a new deal that will keep him in Toulouse until 2023.
‘I’m really happy here,’ he says. ‘Before I signed in 2017 I spoke to Jano Vermaak [the Stormers scrumhalf who spent two seasons with Toulouse from 2013-15] and asked his advice. He was sure I’d enjoy myself. First of all, he told me it is an awesome city and he also said the people look after you really well. He was right, the welcome that my family received has been fantastic.’
It’s not only Toulouse who have benefited from Kolbe’s contentment with life. His form last season caught the eye of Rassie Erasmus, who called him into the Springbok squad. Kolbe won his first cap off the bench against the Wallabies in September and then featured six more times, including appearances in November against France, Scotland and Wales.
Asked to compare and contrast Europe’s finest with the southern hemisphere’s, Kolbe replies: ‘At Test level, everybody’s fitness and intensity is at the same level, but I think the tempo of Super Rugby is found in the Rugby Championship, particularly with New Zealand, and they play wide and with speed. Certainly, when I joined up with the Boks the intensity in training was higher than what I was used to in the Top 14.’
Having had a taste of Test rugby Kolbe would of course love to be able to feast on the World Cup but that decision rests with Erasmus. All he can do is heed the advice of his father.
‘My dad once told me just to focus on playing well week in week out, and the rest will take care of itself,’ says Kolbe. ‘If you do your best, then you’ve done all you can.’
*Mortimer is a Paris-based rugby writer. Follow him on Twitter @GavinMortimer7.