Cheslin Kolbe has gone from a left-field hunch to the Boks’ spirit animal, writes Simnikiwe Xabanisa.
When Rassie Erasmus surprised all and sundry by naming Cheslin Kolbe in his Rugby Championship squad to tour Australasia last year, it was seen as one of the many left-field experiments synonymous with the Springbok coach throughout his career (think disco lights at the Cheetahs).
While nobody could argue that the wee Kolbe – all 1.71m and 78kg of him – has more rugby ability, skill and intellect under that customary scrum cap than 95% of the players roaming the planet, we’d long ago dismissed him as the right size to warrant a career among the diminutive globetrotters of the World Rugby Sevens Series.
Kolbe seemed to concede defeat to public opinion by signing for French club side Toulouse two years ago to play in a league where the money is life-changing but the rugby can be retirement-village pedestrian.
So when Erasmus called him up to the Bok side, there were knowing looks to the effect that the man had allowed his infamously vivid imagination to run away with him.
And with the explosive Sbu Nkosi – a robustly built sort whose bad intentions, physicality-wise, confirm the idea that rugby is more of a collision than contact sport – having burst on to the international scene earlier; a smaller, clever player like Kolbe seemed a bit superfluous.
But Kolbe immediately repaid the faith shown in him with a performance to rival anything the human-machine Pieter-Steph du Toit did at the ‘Miracle of Wellington’ last year, chipping in with an intercept try in that famous Bok victory.
Erasmus surprised again by sending Kolbe, who had grown his cult following by winning the French title with Toulouse, with the advance party to New Zealand this year, instead of leaving him to fight for his place with the so-called ‘second team’ that opened the Rugby Championship against Australia.
Again, the former Stormers man vindicated the call to start him in the return clash against the All Blacks in Wellington, putting in the kind of performance smaller, skillful players aren’t supposed to be able to in a tight game finishing in a 16-all draw.
In a game with nary a chance to show off his ability to step out of tight spots like the Zondo Commission, Kolbe not only chose to display the most underrated aspects of his play – sheer bloody-mindedness and courage – he still found time to log almost 10m from each of his five carries and assist Herschel Jantjies’ last-gasp equaliser with a chip kick.
Forget poor Owen Franks’ air tackle when the little magician stepped the prop off his back, the most eye-catching part of Kolbe’s performance in that game was how Rieko Ioane – a 1.88m, 102kg thoroughbred with the arrogance to match – was snatching at the ball in attack because the fearlessness of a man 17cm shorter and 24kg lighter had unsettled him into thinking he had to be faster in anything he did.
What Kolbe has brought to the Boks is a desire to outwork more advantaged opponents, a fearlessness in pursuit of what should be outlandish dreams and street smarts to overcome the difference.
The Kraaifontein native’s impact has been such that the Boks’ other three wings, Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi – fine players who are all bigger – probably find themselves fighting for the two remaining World Cup spots because he’s consistently punched in their weight range and, as a natural fullback, is the best high-ball taker of the lot, despite his height.
It’s amazing how a player picked on a hunch bordering on a whim has turned out to be the Bok team’s spirit animal.
*XABANISA IS A FREELANCE SPORTS WRITER AND THE 2017 SAB SPORTS COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SIMXABANISA.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images