Cheslin Kolbe has embraced his attacking game in France, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
Cheslin Kolbe is becoming accustomed to spending November in Europe. Last year he toured the continent with the Springboks and this year he’s back, for longer; not with South Africa but playing for Toulouse in the Top 14.
There are parallels to be drawn between the Boks and Toulouse in the past decade.
Ten years ago South Africa were world champions and a force to be feared, as were the French outfit, who were the undisputed kings of northern hemisphere club rugby. Oh, how their fortunes have changed in recent years. We won’t dwell on South Africa’s well-documented decline, but Toulouse have endured a dip every bit as dispiriting. It’s now six seasons since they last won a trophy of any description, an unprecedented period of failure in the professional era.
So what is Kolbe doing signing for a side that has become a silverware-free zone? The answer to that question lies partially in what unfolded in Europe last year. Selected as one of 12 uncapped players by Allister Coetzee for the tour of England, Italy and Wales, Kolbe anticipated a first appearance for his country.
‘I thought I would most likely play the match against the Barbarians,’ says Kolbe, who was included in the tour party after his impressive form on the wing for the Stormers. ‘But it didn’t happen. It was sad because I thought it would … and that was another reason for my decision to come to Toulouse.’
Kolbe wasn’t the only one surprised by his failure to play a match in Europe. Having been held to a draw by the Baa-Baas, the Boks lost to England and were then humiliated by Italy in Rome. That embarrassing 20-18 defeat – their first to the Azzurri – should have prompted Coetzee to take a risk for the final Test of the tour against Wales, but he persisted with Ruan Combrinck on one wing and brought back Jamba Ulengo on the other, despite the fact the latter hadn’t shone in the tour opener against the Barbarians.
But what Combrinck and Ulengo (neither of whom have won a cap since) do have is bulk – the pair are both in excess of 100kg – while Kolbe is more speed than size.
‘I think it has counted against me,’ he says of his 1.70m and 80kg frame. ‘The Springbok selectors look for players who are much bigger, but it motivates me to prove myself. I don’t believe size matters. Every player has two arms and two legs and, sure, most players are heavier than me and I’m going to get bounced sometimes. But 120kg players also get bounced; it’s just when it happens to us small guys that people make a big thing of it.’
Kolbe’s size hasn’t held him back in France. With six tries in his first eight league matches for Toulouse, the 24-year-old has already earned rave reviews, and more than the odd comparison to Gio Aplon, another small Saffa who used his pace and panache to great effect in the Top 14. Aplon (who spent two seasons at Grenoble) and Kolbe, like Clermont’s South African-born Nick Abendanon, have discovered that French rugby offers opportunities for players who have quick feet and quick wits. The bigger, slower forwards in the Top 14 means there is space to be exploited, more so than in Super Rugby or the English Premiership, where forwards are more athletic.
Another South African flier who is thriving in France is Wandile Mjekevu, who spent two seasons with Perpignan before signing for Toulouse this season after a spell back home with the Kings.
‘Wandile has helped me with the language,’ says Kolbe. ‘I’m learning French but it’s a challenge when you arrive. Luckily he translates stuff in meetings and on the field.’
Nothing has been lost in translation so far with Kolbe clearly enjoying his rugby and being part of a Toulouse squad looking to rebuild its battered reputation.
‘The club has been in a dip for four or five seasons but that’s rugby; all sides have their ups and downs,’ he says. ‘But I think players are adapting to the new structures and things will improve. We’re working hard as a squad and we enjoy each other’s company. We’re like brothers; there are no individuals and we help each other out, on and off the field.’
Speaking to Kolbe, it’s clear the desire to play for South Africa still burns bright and his voice oozes passion when he talks of ‘one day pulling on the green and gold jersey’.
Of course, it’s his choice that he’s withdrawn from the Springbok selection window, so to speak, and yes, financially he’s doing well for himself in Toulouse. But it’s not as if Kolbe jumped at the first offer that came along.
Toulouse have admitted that they had their eye on him ever since he came to France in 2013 as part of the Junior Boks squad for the U20 Championship, but Kolbe remained true to his roots in the hope of winning a cap. That didn’t happen and every man has his price, not to mention his size.
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine