Cheslin Kolbe’s meteoric rise at French club Toulouse has been a joy to behold, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Some players head overseas and fall off the radar. Others make their money but hover among the middle of the pack. Others excel, taking their game to the next level.
It goes without saying that Kolbe falls smack bang into the latter category.
You only have to reflect on some of the comments from onlookers in France to realise what an impact he has made at French club Toulouse over the past three years.
‘In many ways, he was made for Toulouse and their unique brand of unstructured, counter-attacking rugby,’ says veteran French journalist Arnaud David.
Or how about this gem of a one-liner from former Bordeaux and Bayonne coach Vincent Etcheto: ‘In a rugby game that can often become claustrophobic, where we are often suffocating, he brings oxygen every time he touches the ball.’
Once undeniably undervalued in South Africa, Kolbe is now a rugby rock star in France, while his exploits for the Springboks since making his debut in 2018 have elevated him into a class of his own.
Yes, Pieter-Steph du Toit is the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, but an injury and a severely disrupted 2020 calendar have denied us the opportunity of seeing the best of him this year. Fiji-born Semi Radradra has been tearing it up since joining English club Bristol Bears, but Kolbe is simply too hot to handle.
Just ask Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale, who looked more of a rotating turnstile as the South African danced his way past his attempted tackles in the recent Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Just the week before Kolbe had hit the ground running with a stunning two-try display against La Rochelle, adding more substance to the claims that the 26-year-old is currently the best player in world rugby.
For one, Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll added his voice to a chorus of praise when he admitted watching a player like Kolbe made him grateful he had retired so he didn’t have to defend against him.
Kolbe’s focus will now be on maintaining his fitness and form as the season continues, but every indication is that the dynamic wing remains at the height of his peerless powers. He is a player like no other, with his dynamism, gutsy defence and lethal attacking game setting him apart.
In another article from our latest magazine, Stormers coach John Dobson unsurprisingly identifies Kolbe as one of the greatest athletes: ‘If you went to a lot of clubs around the world and asked them who’s the one back they would sign, they would say Cheslin Kolbe – I reckon they would take him above Beauden Barrett at the moment.’
He’s not wrong.
With his bravery and ability to punch above his weight, Kolbe ensures he isn’t a liability on defence, while there is no player in the world with better footwork and side-stepping ability. Then there’s the athleticism and timing that allows him to compete more than capably for the ball in the air.
It amounts to a player who has minimal weaknesses, but many strengths. Don’t forget to factor in the fact Toulouse have used him at certain restarts where teammates lift him high into the sky to receive kick-offs.
He’s also slotted in at No 8 on scrum plays for the club. Yes, you read that correctly.
He’s played at 10 and 15, while he’s even proved he’s capable of taking on goal-kicking duties. Not to mention he can also fill in at scrumhalf if needed.
Then take a moment to consider he only turns 27 at the end of October, with the 2021 British & Irish Lions series and 2023 World Cups there for the taking.
So when it comes to the Kolbe show, sit back, and enjoy.
*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale