Cheslin Kolbe is small in stature but big in heart, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
It took just one minute and 25 seconds of the second half for Cheslin Kolbe to make an indelible mark on the Springboks’ match against the All Blacks in Wellington.
Good rush defence from Jesse Kriel and Pieter-Steph du Toit had put Liam Squire and Anton Leinert-Brown under pressure, with the latter attempting a high-risk pass to Rieko Ioane on his outside. Kolbe, who was on the right wing, having replaced injured centre Lukhanyo Am at half-time, read play perfectly to intercept the ball just inside the All Blacks’ half. No one looked like catching the 24-year-old, who dotted down for his first Test try, somersaulted back to his feet and punched the air in delight.
‘It was an exciting moment, knowing I had the ball with the tryline ahead of me,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘To score my first Test try against the All Blacks in New Zealand was really special, which is why I celebrated like that. I didn’t do it because I felt I had proved a point.’
You wouldn’t have blamed Kolbe if that had, in fact, been the case. Before signing for Toulouse in France, his size – 69kg and 1.70m – while playing for Western Province and the Stormers had counted against him when it came to Test selection. While Kolbe went on the Boks’ end-of-year tour in 2016, coach Allister Coetzee didn’t give him a game (not even against the Barbarians) and in January 2017, he signed a deal with Toulouse. After a final Super Rugby season with the Stormers, Kolbe packed his bags for France, a move that made him ineligible for Springbok selection at the time.
‘I expected to play at least one game on that 2016 tour, so it was disappointing,’ says Kolbe. ‘However, it was still a good experience to be part of the Springbok set-up and see how they do things.
‘It was a tough decision to leave South Africa, but I had been at the Stormers for six or seven years and felt I needed a new challenge.’
Kolbe made an outstanding start to his Toulouse career, scoring six tries in his first eight games. His size was a non-issue in France and he was encouraged to play his natural attacking game. While he scored just four tries in his next 17 matches, he created several others for teammates. Against Lyon on 25 August this year, Kolbe made a brilliant run from near his 22 well into the opposition’s before offloading in the tackle to Joe Tekori, who put Yoann Huget over for the try.
A couple of days later, Kolbe was about to go into a Toulouse team meeting when forwards coach William Servat came up to him and said, ‘Now you can bring me some biltong.’
A confused Kolbe replied, ‘My wife is going to Cape Town in October and can get some.’
Toulouse coach Ugo Mola then walked in, looked at Kolbe and shook his head.
It was only after the meeting that Mola explained to Kolbe that he wouldn’t be with the club for the next month as he had been called up by Bok coach Rassie Erasmus for their tour of Australia and New Zealand. It came as a ‘great surprise’.
The following Saturday, Kolbe came off the bench in the 34th minute of the Boks’ match against the Wallabies in Brisbane, replacing the injured Makazole Mapimpi.
‘The whole week in Australia was exciting,’ he says. ‘When I heard I had been included in the match 23, I was quite emotional. Playing for my country was something I had dreamed about since I was a kid, so to come on to the field to finally get that Test cap was awesome.’
The following week, in Wellington, Kolbe got another 40 minutes, scoring that try and twice testing himself on defence against Ioane. On the first occasion, the All Blacks wing handed off Kolbe on his way to the tryline but on the second, later in the game, the Bok stopped him in his tracks with an excellent front-on tackle.
‘I had played against Ioane before in sevens, so I knew what I would be up against,’ says Kolbe. ‘I could have read the situation better the first time, when he handed me off. Beauden Barrett had made the offload and I was caught between the two of them and off-balance. The second time, it was a one-on-one tackle. It’s all about timing in those situations, especially for a player like me. It was good to show that it doesn’t matter what size you are, it’s all about your attitude, especially on defence.’
Kolbe had to put his body on the line again during the frantic final minutes, when the All Blacks hammered away at the Bok tryline in search of a match-winning try.
‘I don’t know how many tackles I had to make at the end … I just remember getting stuck with the big boys around the ruck. You don’t want to let down the guy next to you, so you just have to make the tackle.’
The Boks were able to withstand that onslaught to claim a famous 36-34 victory, their first in New Zealand since 2009 and just their fourth in the professional era.
‘No one gave us a chance of winning that match, so when the final whistle went, it was an amazing feeling,’ says Kolbe. ‘Not many players have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand; to do it in just my second Test is something I will never forget.’
Having realised his dream of wearing the green and gold, Kolbe now has another.
‘I would love to go to the World Cup next year and play on the biggest stage. For now, though, I just want to gain experience at Test level and play to the best of my ability.’
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Cheslin Kolbe spent a few days in Cape Town after the Springboks’ tour of Australasia. When he visited his parents in Scottsville, Kraaifontein, he took a photo of a child kicking a rugby ball between the streetlight posts.
‘Gave me goosebumps seeing this young boy having fun, flashback to when I was doing the same thing kicking for the light posts,’ Kolbe said on Instagram. ‘First thing I told my wife, that was me when I was younger. #whereitallstarted.’
He tells SA Rugby magazine: ‘I would come home from school, do my homework and then go on to the street and kick the ball. I could never have imagined that I would go from there to playing for the Springboks one day.’
BREYTON PAULSE ON KOLBE
‘Cheslin’s Springbok call-up surprised a lot of people because there’s a perception in South African rugby that smaller players won’t make it at Test level, even though guys like me and Brent Russell did,’ says Paulse, the former Bok wing who played 64 Tests from 1999 to 2007.
‘It was probably that perception that saw Cheslin decide to leave his beloved Western Province and Stormers for Toulouse.
‘He set the field alight in France and his performances could no longer be ignored. I think he matured in France and has become a better player and person. It’s not always easy going abroad at such a young age.
‘Well done to Rassie Erasmus for being brave enough to give Cheslin a chance and for introducing him to Test rugby by bringing him off the bench in Brisbane and Wellington. It would have given the player a good idea of the pressures of Test rugby and what it’s all about.
‘I thought Cheslin had a fantastic game against the All Blacks in Wellington. He came on and scored a great try when the Boks really needed it and put his body on the line. He was shoved around a bit by Rieko Ioane [when the All Blacks wing scored his second try] but that happens to big players too. Cheslin did stop Ioane later in the game – with a front-on tackle, which takes skill – and made some important tackles during the last couple of minutes on some of the All Blacks’ big men.
‘My advice to Cheslin would be to keep working hard on his defensive technique and on communicating with the defenders on his inside and outside. But he should also focus on his strengths. He is a ball player and a game breaker, so he must make that part of his game even better.
‘I’d also tell him not to worry about perceptions or what people say. Unfortunately, if you do 10 great things on the field and miss one tackle, people will focus on that missed tackle. Cheslin has been picked because he can create something on attack and score tries, so be that guy and the rest will fall into place.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.