Rugby Championship

Cheslin’s greatest gift? His character

2018-08-31 14:36
Cheslin Kolbe
Cheslin Kolbe in action for Toulouse (Getty Images)

Cape Town - He is one of those rugby players who can often leave you wonderstruck. Just as often, he makes you wince.

READ: Kolbe a shock addition to Springbok squad

The wincing bit, when watching the delightfully slippery Cheslin Kolbe in action, has nothing to do with any incompetence. You seldom see that from a man who oozes a very special constructiveness ... which may well explain why Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus summoned the uncapped player on Friday to his latest tour plans, slightly against the odds.

It is more because of the sheer, crude battering he quite regularly, yet philosophically takes ... something almost inevitable in a hugely contact-based modern game where a great many backline beasts have become hard to tell apart from the gnarliest forwards.

Kolbe, through no fault of his own, tips the scales in the unusually modest region of 74-78kg - despite clearly being dedicated to his gym regimes when able or required - and stands only 1.72m.

As former Springbok coach Nick Mallett observed a couple of years back: “He’s (roughly) the same height and weight as Aaron Smith.”

Significantly, that was at a time when the SuperSport pundit was creatively punting Kolbe’s case for a switch to scrumhalf, the berth where Smith is so imperious a figure for the all-conquering All Blacks.

Physically, Kolbe would look a lot less “fish out of water” at No 9, of course ... though any transition would not necessarily have been easy, would not have carried the luxury of a guarantee slip.

Instead, and now closing in on his 25th birthday, Toulouse-based Kolbe has stuck resolutely to his guns as a back-three component of a rugby team, offering credentials as both a fullback (customarily his preferred slot) and wing.

Resolve, after all, is an almost indisputable part of his rugby armoury.

That probably made him about as popular a figure as he was in his “Newlands years” with the Stormers/WP (2013-2017) as for reasons related to his supremely elusive, spark-an-attack-from-nothing raids from the back of the field.

Kolbe is a thrill machine, by all accounts a phenomenon that hasn’t changed one bit since his transfer to the French Top 14 … Gallic people are partial to a bit of self-expression.

He left a clearly discernible void in Cape Town where the Stormers, in particular, have tended toward a more common pattern of sterility, predictability in attack since.

But even if there will be dissenters to this view, I would go so far as to say the defensive side of Kolbe’s rugby - yes, I said defensive side - is missed too.

For he was under-rated inspirer, if you like, for franchise colleagues through his personal fortitude and tenacity in the tackle or unflinching willingness under an agonisingly hanging, high ball with a brutish opposition cavalry approaching fast.

Certainly, there are times when Kolbe gets knocked back with special violence, which is probably also when pot-bellied wise guys - themselves perhaps clutching nothing more threatening than a beer and a remote control - strike up their almost reflex “See? He’s too small!” wail.

They may forget that big specimens get dumped as well: remember Bismarck du Plessis being deposited unceremoniously on his posterior (hardly an everyday event for him) by a rampaging young Eben Etzebeth at Newlands several years ago?

It may also slip those critics’ minds that players blessed with greater physical proportions than Kolbe can be feeble “revolving doors” defensively when minds aren’t properly attuned to responsibilities.

The other striking feature of the gritty little combatant is how often he simply brushes himself down after an undignified crash to the turf and resumes his duties as though immune to pain (or the dangers of concussion, admittedly a department where, like certain other high-profile players of varying sizes worldwide, he has to be vigilantly policed).

Will Kolbe flourish for South Africa?

Well, first things first ... he is among a 31-strong party travelling to Australasia, for the back-to-back encounters with the Wallabies and All Blacks, so matchday involvement may well remain beyond him at this point.

His selection could be a toe-in-the-water thing, for the time being.

The one near-certainty is that if he does get to debut in some form - it would be useful if, like Damian McKenzie in New Zealand, he is surrounded more often than not by some balancing, big units in the back division - he will throw his lightweight frame lustily at the task.

Kolbe’s mere selection for the Bok squad is a bit of a triumph of the spirit.

We should salute it, and him.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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