Cheslin Kolbe, the small wing with a big heart has set the World Cup alight, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest issue of SA Rugby Magazine.
‘Cheslin Kolbe is a beast! He’s a pocket rocket!’ Ardie Savea gushed in the aftermath of the All Blacks’ 23-13 win over the Springboks.
‘He’s probably the smallest guy on the field but he’s so hard to tackle. That is testimony to his qualities. He was tough to handle out there.’
Kolbe’s direct opponent, George Bridge, echoed Savea’s sentiments.
‘Cheslin was pretty hard to bring down,’ the All Blacks No 11 said. ‘Our scramble defence was good and that was probably the area of the game that was the difference. But he was definitely igniting a fair bit of their attack and it was tough marking him.’
Bok wing S’bu Nkosi – who was the first-choice No 14 at the start of the 2018 season before he sustained a serious injury – watched the match from the stands at the Yokohama Stadium.
‘Yoh, I was getting excited there in my seat,’ he said. ‘Cheslin was really tearing it up. It was inspiring stuff.’
Kolbe finished the game with standout stats that included beating 11 defenders and making 128 run metres.
The Boks had moved on to the quiet coastal town of Omaezaki by the time SA Rugby magazine caught up with Kolbe. There’s no hype around the World Cup in this part of Japan. The coaches and players appear to be enjoying their time away from the spotlight.
After we take a seat in a quiet corner of the team hotel – which the South Africans have to themselves – Kolbe opens up about his unconventional journey to the top. It’s been an unforgettable season for the 25-year-old, who has won the Top 14 with Toulouse and the Rugby Championship with the Boks. He will add a third winner’s medal to his tally if the Boks win the World Cup.
It’s hard to believe there was a time – and not too long ago – when he wasn’t on the Bok radar and was thought to be too small for international rugby.
Kolbe and his wife Layla attended the Test between the Boks and England at Ellis Park in 2018. ‘I have always wanted to play Test rugby and to represent the Boks,’ he says. ‘I watched that game as a fan and was inspired by what I saw. It strengthened my resolve to realise my dream.’
While he was a popular player at Western Province and the Stormers, his career started to take off only after he moved to Toulouse in 2017. By the time of that Johannesburg Test, Kolbe had established himself as one of the top players in Europe. He had already signed a contract extension with the French giants until 2023.
‘Toulouse was the start of a new chapter for me,’ he says. ‘My wife and I treated the move like an adventure. It was something completely different for us. Just getting our heads around the culture and the language was a challenge.
‘The move forced me to grow on and off the field. I had more responsibilities to consider after my daughter was born. In a way, that all helped me make wiser decisions while I was playing.’
Opportunity knocked when Nkosi – one of Rassie Erasmus’ first-choice wings in the series against England – broke down with a serious injury. Kolbe was included in the match-day 23 for the crunch Rugby Championship match against the All Blacks in Wellington.
He made the chance count. An intercept try in the second half swung the game in the Boks’ favour. Several telling tackles at the death helped keep a rampant All Blacks at bay.
The win ended South Africa’s nine-year drought on New Zealand soil. The performance forced the rugby world to revise its view of the Boks as a limited and one-dimensional side.
Fast forward to the present, where Kolbe is one of South Africa’s primary strike weapons and is regularly spoken about as one of the best wings in the world.
‘I suppose it comes down to taking opportunities,’ he says. ‘I was fortunate I had a coach who was willing to consider me for the national side while I was playing in France. If you play the best rugby you can and you never give up, you are always going to improve your chances of getting picked.
‘It’s crazy to think about where I was 18 months ago and where I am now. I wouldn’t say I’ve ticked a box yet, though, because we’re all working towards something bigger. We want to make the whole of South Africa proud with our performances at this World Cup.’
At 1.71m and 80kg, Kolbe is one of the smallest players on the international scene. In theory, he should be at a disadvantage when competing against taller opponents like Bridge for the high ball. A smaller player should struggle to contain larger and heavier opponents when he is defending in the wider channels.
For the most part, however, Kolbe has risen to these challenges and proved many people wrong.
‘I’ve got used to people making a big deal about my size,’ he says with a smile. ‘I guess that’s always going to be the perception, but I would prefer it if people judged me on my performance.
‘My father taught me that if you want something you have to work hard for it. He told me there will always be people who criticise you and try to tell you that something is not possible or that you are too small.
‘You can’t let that negativity hurt you. I had a lot of that when I was coming through the ranks. People said I wasn’t big enough and that I wouldn’t be able to stop bigger wings on defence. I’ve put a lot of work into that department, though, and feel I have improved.
‘I feel I’m doing my part. Who knows, maybe other people who aren’t as big as everyone else will look at me and see that size isn’t everything.’
Herschel Jantjies was widely credited for securing an important draw against the All Blacks in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Some may forget, though, that it was Kolbe who broke down the right-hand side in the dying moments of the contest and delivered a pin-point kick for Jantjies to chase. The buildup to that try highlighted Kolbe’s ability to conjure up a bit of magic.
It was a point Erasmus made after Kolbe’s two-try heroics in the Boks’ win over Italy in their penultimate World Cup pool game.
‘Cheslin must be among the best players in the world, alongside guys like Sevu Reece and Damian McKenzie, for X factor. They all have the ability to create something from nothing.’
In the SuperSport studio, former Bok coach Nick Mallett waxed lyrical: ‘Cheslin happens to be my favourite rugby player in the world at the moment. He is a little superstar.’
Meanwhile, former Boks Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon and Bryan Habana all concurred on social media that Kolbe could well be a contender for World Rugby Player of the Year should he maintain such dazzling form.
It’s fair to say that Kolbe has proved he is a man for the big occasion.
‘I’m not one to put any extra pressure on myself just because we are playing against the All Blacks or we are playing at the World Cup,’ he says. ‘I see it as another game, maybe because I have played in a few big games before.
‘I’ve faced the All Blacks before and this team has had some success against them in recent years. So by the time that game in Yokohama arrived, and when I stepped on to the field, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the occasion. On the contrary, I quite enjoy those big games against the best teams. It’s the ultimate challenge.’
While it’s crucial that the Boks perform at this World Cup, they should also continue to improve over the next four-year cycle. Kolbe should be among those leading the revolution when the team tackles the British & Irish Lions in 2021 and when it travels to the next World Cup in 2023.
‘Every player here would love to be involved with the Boks next year. That Lions series and the next World Cup in France are big drawcards,’ Kolbe says.
‘But I think about how I wasn’t in the Bok set-up a year ago, and how hard I’ve fought to be here and how quickly things can change. I’m not going to take anything for granted.’
YOKOHAMA GAME CHANGER: MO’UNGA HAULS IN KOLBE
Cheslin Kolbe was one of the standout performers in the World Cup clash between the Springboks and All Blacks at the Yokohama Stadium. There was a moment in the second half when the wing broke the line and headed for the right-hand corner. All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga managed to reel in Kolbe, though, and force him into touch.
In the aftermath of the All Blacks’ 23-13 victory, coach Steve Hansen singled out that play as a game-changer.
‘It was probably a match-winner,’ he said. ‘They hurt us a couple of times. The boys got back well and Richie saved that one. It was a very good moment. That’s what rugby’s about. You try to win those moments.’
Mo’unga revealed how hard he had to work to catch the Bok speedster.
‘I thought I was a bit like Dora the Explorer – I didn’t know where I was actually going. Cheslin had me inside out. I was thinking, “Man, he’s going to make a dick out of me.” He went for the corner and I had to kick into second gear and try to get him.’
Kolbe was able to see the lighter side of it all.
‘I probably should have made an earlier decision to go to the outside,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Richie showed good wheels to get me back into the corner and into touch. I just need to make sure I finish things off when I get another chance like that.’
– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby Magazine, now on sale