As we wrap up our coverage of the Springboks’ World Cup anniversary, SA Rugby magazine brings you a selection of top features, this time focusing on the impact of Cheslin Kolbe.
One of the key selection criteria for the Springbok coaches involves a point of difference among players. What sets an individual apart? Call it X factor or that special something; the Boks under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have placed a premium on looking for a player who has qualities that set him apart from the crowd.
In that context, there is probably no player who better epitomises this selection criteria than Cheslin Kolbe. Through sheer weight of performances over his first two years on the Test stage, the diminutive Springbok wing has blazed his own unique trail in world rugby.
Such has been his success that any conversations around his size have faded into the distance as if mirroring the flailing English defenders who were left in his wake as he blitzed through for his famous try in last year’s World Cup final. Kolbe – who punches above his weight on defence and seems to defy gravity with his ability under the high ball – has proved that little men can make it big on the Test stage.
Yet, despite his rise to prominence as one of the most highly-regarded players in the world, Kolbe remains as down to earth and humble as they come, unencumbered by his sudden fame and immense popularity.
These off-field qualities were perhaps best demonstrated in an endearing social media post he shared on Instagram in May. Where many players use that platform to splash pictures of their fame and fortune, Kolbe offered a complete contrast in a heartfelt message raising awareness around crucial work he was involved in during the coronavirus pandemic.
‘The joy on those young kids’ faces, the suffering in our elders’ eyes, the struggles in our communities, this is what hit home. This is what makes me want to do more. Many people look up to me and many people approach me for help. I honestly want to try and help where I can. It has nothing to do about me or the credits, but it took a lot of me to do this post. I am not posting this to boast or for acknowledgement that I am giving back, I apologise if I am doing this wrong,’ he wrote.
‘Friends, family, companies: Our people need us … If you can help in anyway, you help feed a starving child, a mother trying to feed a household, a man that has nothing to bring to the table during this lockdown due to no economic activity or the impossibility of odd jobs. Please I urge you to help. If each one of us, can feed one, no one will go to bed hungry. Together we can fight this pandemic, together we can be the difference.’
Although the Toulouse-based 26-year-old was meant to be in France during this time, a visit to Cape Town suddenly turned into a lengthier stay as lockdown was implemented. However, as he continued his work with the ‘Be the Difference Foundation’, Kolbe tells SA Rugby magazine he felt there was a purpose for being in Cape Town.
‘During our time in the communities, I asked someone what motivates him. I thought he might say a player or something like that, but he just started singing a worship song. It just made me think this virus makes you take a closer look at yourself, and you realise how others have to live, and how much need there is.’
It’s this period out of the game that has provided an opportunity for introspection and a realignment of priorities. Just a few months ago, Kolbe was being held aloft by his teammates after scoring that try, which gave the Springboks an unassailable lead in the World Cup final. A day later, he was in attendance at the 2019 World Rugby awards, where he was a nominee for World Player of the Year.
It has been a whirlwind ride to lofty heights for the soft-spoken Kolbe, whose actions on the field speak volumes for his inherent character and courage. Such has been his meteoric rise in the international arena, it’s almost easy to forget that he made his Test debut less than two years ago.
Kolbe chuckles when he recounts receiving the call-up from Erasmus in 2018: ‘It was just after an away game against Lyon. When we got back together as a team on the Monday morning, we headed into our team meeting and our forwards coach at the time, William Servat, came to me and asked me to bring him some biltong.
‘I didn’t know what he meant because I wasn’t planning to go back to South Africa any time soon as the season over there had just started. I started to tell him I’d try and get my wife to bring some the next time, but he just got up and left. Then the coach Ugo Mola walked in, I greeted him and he just shook his head.
‘I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I was a bit confused and was trying to think if I’d done anything wrong because it was a bit awkward. When the meeting ended, Mola told me that I’d been called up by the Springboks, and although he said it was sad to let me go, they were happy to release me.’
Suddenly, Kolbe found himself joining up with the Springbok squad ahead of the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship, where another surprise lay in wait.
‘My first proper face-to face chat with coach Rassie was at the hotel reception, I was getting the cable ties cut off my luggage, and he’d just come out of a meeting. He welcomed me to the team, asked me how I was feeling and if there were any injury worries. I told him “thanks for the opportunity and that I’m 100 percent fine”. He said, if that’s the case you’ll be on the bench for the next game. I stood there and could barely believe it, and was wondering is this how things happen here with such an open chat,’ Kolbe laughs.
A Test debut off the bench duly followed, but the real heroics would come a week later when he scored a stunning intercept try in the Springboks’ famous two-point win over the All Blacks in Wellington.
And so began Kolbe’s ‘love affair’ of playing against the All Blacks. In the Springboks’ final 2018 Rugby Championship Test, he would score another memorable try in a narrow defeat. The next time he lined up against the Boks’ fierce rivals, it would be his break away and perfectly-weighted chip kick that set up a try for Herschel Jantjies to draw the game.
‘I just wanted to prove myself and show what I could contribute,’ he said. ‘Of course, the big dream was to be part of the World Cup squad, but I knew I had to be consistent and that was the big focus for me. After receiving the opportunity with the Boks, I knew it was up to me to make the best out of it, and I just wanted to ensure I would never let my teammates down and earn their respect.
‘Thankfully I feel I have been able to produce some of the best rugby of my career up to this point, and also just have a lot of fun out there. It’s been such a rewarding and humbling experience with the Springboks,’ he adds. ‘The respect within the group is phenomenal, there are no egos, and it’s made such a happy environment and one you want to be part of.’
Kolbe was again the star of the show even as the Boks went on to lose their World Cup opener against the All Blacks, but he looks back on that match as one which brought the team ‘back down to earth’, before refocusing on ‘every 1% of extra work’ to ensure they could get the campaign back on track.
That would prove to be the case as the Springboks breezed past Namibia, before hammering Italy to all but secure a place in the playoffs, with Kolbe scoring two more memorable tries. Yet, there was a twist to the final few minutes of this clash when the Man of the Match was caught from behind and brought down in a tackle, horribly twisting his ankle in the process.
Kolbe put on a brave face immediately after the game, while in the days to follow the Springbok staff outwardly expressed confidence that the injury was nothing too serious. Yet, in a story that has not been widely shared, Kolbe tells SA Rugby magazine there were some dark days as he desperately tried to overcome the ankle strain.
‘It was a scary moment … Honestly I couldn’t stand up or walk comfortably just after it happened, it was so painful and my first reaction was that this could be bad for me … I just prayed I’d be able to recover and wouldn’t have to get on a plane home as I first feared could be the case.’
Doing everything in his power to recover, Kolbe repeatedly saw the team’s physiotherapist and religiously iced his ankle and conducted his rehab work. Still unable to accelerate to 100% or change direction comfortably, he continued his rest and rehabilitation as the Boks comfortably overcame Canada in the final pool game. But with that result booking a quarter-final against hosts Japan, Kolbe realised he had to prove his fitness.
‘I got back to training after missing the Canada week, and knew I had to start running again. That added to my doubts. At the beginning of the week before the quarter-final, at one point I just lay on my bed, and prayed … My wife and daughter were there to give me strength and that helped me a lot because I was in a dark place and thinking all sorts of things, but they kept me positive. I left it up to God, and put it out my mind.’
As Kolbe recounts, he woke up on the Tuesday before the big match, and suddenly felt free of discomfort and stress. He pushed through training and was mercifully cleared for quarter-final selection. But the story doesn’t end there. In the opening exchanges against Japan, he would strain his ankle again. Despite again playing through the discomfort, it was clear that the wing wasn’t at his best.
Then, as per team selection policy, if any player was unable train on the Monday, they would not be considered for selection that weekend, which duly ruled Kolbe out of consideration for the semi-final against Wales.
SA Rugby magazine understands that by end of the semi-final week, Kolbe was back to full fitness and impressing yet again in training. It posed something of a dilemma as the Springboks prepared to go into a crucial World Cup knockout match without one of their most influential players, despite the fact he was fully fit.
It’s an anecdote that may not have had such a happy ending if not for the Springboks’ ability to battle past Wales, before producing a stunning performance against England in the final, highlighted by Kolbe’s superb solo try that sent all of South Africa into delirious celebrations. Just the clip of Kolbe’s try has had nearly a million views on World Rugby’s official YouTube channel. When reminded of this, the speedster offers a wry, rather shy laugh before deflecting attention to a greater cause.
‘That try was for the team and South Africa, it was an unbelievable feeling. When I look back it was a moment of pure joy, and hopefully it gave hope to some other young players and people back home. My will has always been to do the best I can, and to show that no matter how small you are, as long as you are hungry and have that desire, then you can make it.’
Indeed, the try itself speaks to the abilities of Kolbe as a player, while his reaction to the magical moment itself epitomises the qualities of Kolbe as a person.
‘Cheslin Kolbe is arguably one the best, if not the best, signing of the Top 14 of the past 10 years,’ says veteran French journalist Arnaud David. ‘His influence on Toulouse winning the title last season can only be compared with Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
In many ways, he was made for Toulouse and their unique brand of unstructured, counter-attacking rugby. Twelve years ago, Toulouse fans fell in love with Byron Kelleher. The club won a French title (2008) and a European Cup (2010) with the former All Blacks scrumhalf.
But as 82-year-old Edmond Bonfils – the oldest rugby writer in Toulouse once told me – the passion for Cheslin is “higher, stronger”. He has brought back supporters into the stadium.’
The plaudits do not end there.
‘People come to Stade Ernest-Wallon not only to support Toulouse but to see Cheslin play,’ says Thomas Castaignede, the former France fullback and darling of the club who is now on the board.
‘There is one Stade Toulousain with Cheslin and one Stade Toulousain without him,’ says Yannick Bru, former coach of the club, to underline how influential the Springbok star has been during last season.
‘In a rugby game that can often become claustrophobic, where we are often suffocating, he brings oxygen every time he touches the ball,’ enthuses Vincent Etcheto, former Bordeaux and Bayonne coach.
‘He is an exceptional player,’ says Antoine Dupont, France scrumhalf and Kolbe’s teammate. ‘Whether it is in a match or during a training session, he manages to do incredible things that surprise us.’
Kolbe on …
His goal to face the British & Irish Lions in 2021
‘I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I just want to put myself in the best possible position to play in that series by continuing to keep performing for my club … Having said that, it would be a blessing to be part of the British & Irish Lions series, if possible. That would just be a blessing because it only comes around once every 12 years.’
The overwhelming number of English supporters who turned up at the World Cup final
From the moment we got to the venue for the warm-up, all we heard was English supporters. I just stood there and saw white jerseys, but we just looked to embrace that. For some reason or another that gave us more hunger and energy, we were all aligned and everyone was on the same page. You could see that from the first tackle and how everyone got back to their feet so quickly after making a hit. We just wanted to leave it all out there, and put our bodies on the line.
Having his wife and daughter in Japan with him
It was such a blessing. I think it really benefited us a team to be allowed to have our partners at the team hotel. When training is done, we could spend time with family, and share moments with them. It was awesome to have them on this journey with us. You have to sacrifice a lot as a player, but so do our families with all the time we spend away from home. So to experience that all together was very special.
Defying the odds on defence and with his aerial game
For us as wings, we knew the importance of the kick-chase and getting up there to contest, which is something I enjoy. On defence, I have had critics because I’m not one of the biggest guys on the field, but it was a massive part of the Springbok game and it’s something we get energy out of it. You have to stay connected with your centre and make good decisions in reading the game to close down the attacking options. This was something I really had to learn a lot about, but the more I got the hang of it, the more comfortable I became.