Part 1: Kolbe picked among the greatest athletes

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, we approached several experts to single out players they’d coached who were in a class of their own.

Former New Zealand coach Steve Hansen got his fellow coaches all nostalgic when he recently declared that league convert Sonny Bill Williams was the greatest athlete he had coached in a 24-year career which has taken in the sights of the Crusaders, Wales and the All Blacks, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

READ: What’s in our latest issue?

Locals John Dobson, Nick Mallett, Brendan Venter and Paul Treu have also looked into the recesses of their minds for the one athlete who excited them above others in a working environment densely populated by athletes, and some couldn’t limit themselves to one …

John Dobson (Stormers coach)

For me it’s Cheslin Kolbe by a mile. That’s because he’s tough, has a great work ethic and I’ve never seen anyone who can beat somebody in such a small space – I’ve never seen feet like that. His athletic qualities are speed, acceleration, deceleration and footwork.

The thing is, defence has been in the ascendancy for a while now in rugby, he’s one of the guys who can break down defences. There are two ways you can do it, with your Jonah Lomu-type guy or someone who can do it with footwork, and there’s nobody better than Cheslin at that, he’s got the best feet in the world. Also, what people miss is how tough and incredibly strong he is. He’ll steal ball, he’ll chase kicks until the 80th minute and you never substitute Cheslin Kolbe.

I don’t think he’s ever been substituted unless he was being protected from injury. And the wings are running so much more than they used to, so he’s fit. His cousin is [world 400m record holder] Wayde van Niekerk, so he’s obviously got some of those genes … 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.

Nick Mallett (Former Springbok and Italy coach)

There were so many good athletes, but for consistency I would say Andre Venter and Sergio Parisse. For such a big guy – he was 1.95m and 112-115kg – Venter had an engine that never stopped and he was so quick. If you combine his endurance ability with some really good pace, and you’ve got size and strength and muscle to go with it … he was a phenomenal athlete.

Early in his career there were stories from the Free State about him running 5km to practice, having a full-on fitness session and running back home. So he would just add a quick 10k to what everyone else was doing. He was also a great rugby player, he did all the stuff you wanted your blindside flanker to do.

We’ve been lucky in South Africa with those extraordinary athletes who have taken up that blindside spot, guys who were almost like mobile and athletic locks. Parisse was an extraordinary athlete, he was probably as quick, if not quicker than Venter, also the same height but probably a little lighter.

He was explosive: he would get off the ground at the back of the lineout with such ease, his ability to handle high ball was incredible and he could step and pass out of contact. If he’d had the good fortune to grow up in New Zealand or even South Africa he would have been even more of a superstar.

He would carry half the Italian team on his shoulders. He was really brilliant, a loose forward you felt could easily play inside centre. It would be tough for me to choose between the two. In terms of an ability to have an impact on the entire 80 minutes of a game, Venter was unsurpassed.

He would play 60 minutes on the flank, I’d bring Bob Skinstad on and move him to lock and he would make as many tackles and hit as many rucks in the 20 minutes he played lock as he did at blindside flank. So in terms of impact throughout the game it would be Venter, but in terms of impact in a movement – someone who could do something extraordinary – I would say Sergio.

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale! Part 2 will be published on Sunday.

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Craig Lewis