No 9: Might Kolbe switch be forced?

    2016-06-02 14:11

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The aftermath of the two Vodacom Super Rugby derbies in South Africa last Saturday was dominated by Allister Coetzee’s announcement of his maiden Springbok squad …. quickly masking a perturbing event at Newlands.

    Once their match reports on the Stormers v Cheetahs clash or Loftus’s encounter between the Bulls and Lions were completed, scribes quickly turned their attention fulsomely to discussion of Coetzee’s 31-strong party.

    At least as far as the Capetonian fixture was concerned, it meant that relatively little was made of Cheslin Kolbe, the mercurial little Stormers fullback, being knocked out cold and stretchered off … again.

    The game itself was uncompromising and often ill-tempered, but not for the first time in 2016 Kolbe unjustly ended up being the most damaged contestant physically; the protracted push-and-shove between Bok team-mates Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager ended up being little more than that.

    In general play, following a kick charge-down, Kolbe made accidental head contact with a Cheetahs player and was pole-axed.

    Coach Robbie Fleck admitted afterwards that his tenacious No 15 briefly lost consciousness as he was given extended medical attention and then taken off on the buggy, to the clear consternation of Stormers colleagues.

    Kolbe, who is now earmarked for fresh Blitzbokke duty as they prepare for the Olympic Sevens, has racked up at least three significant, concussion-suspected head blows in the space of almost exactly two months.

    On March 26, his worrisome sequence began when he was similarly left “lights out” against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and a mere fortnight later the 1.71m, less-than-80kg competitor collected a cynical, late shoulder to the head from Sunwolves lock Tim Bond, who was red-carded for his sins.

    Kolbe sports exemplary courage for an unusually small “back three” modern rugby player, and constantly brushes aside his blows to come back rapidly for further service to his franchise and with no less resolve and commitment – others of greater physical proportions might well be psychologically impeded.

    Concussion comes in varying degrees of severity and is sometimes later ruled out altogether in head bangs for players, of course, but recognition that Kolbe was knocked out against both the Jaguares and Cheetahs nevertheless suggests events leaning toward a more serious nature in each instance.

    There is also open-ended debate around just how many concussions are “OK” (for want of a better word) for a sportsperson: someone like the beefy, still-active Waratahs and Wallabies hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, 30, is believed to have had around a dozen and been urged by some fellow-players and medical experts to retire.

    Several players in recent years have hung up their boots reluctantly and prematurely due to repeated head traumas – among them Crusaders and All Black fullback Leon MacDonald (at32), Reds and Wallabies utility back Elton Flatley (28) and more recently Chiefs front-ranker Ben Afeaki (27).

    Concussion can lead to long-term brain damage, with possible links to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

    English rugby writer Steve James wrote in the Daily Telegraph ( last year that concussions were up 59 percent in the Aviva Premiership and 2014/15 “was the season in which it became clearer than ever that concussion is now rugby’s greatest problem”.

    He said the breakdown had become “a frenzy of hostility and collision”.

    It would almost certainly be overly alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that the diminutive Kolbe is anywhere near the concussion-related tallies of players like those listed above, but it also needs to be remembered that he is only 22 so he has “started young”, and presumably worryingly so, in bad head knocks.

    Kolbe operates for the Stormers in a last-line position where the potential for receiving heavy, high-speed tackles – sometimes legal, sometimes inevitably ill-timed or even malicious – is greater than most, and his lightweight frame hardly helps in cushioning the impact.

    Outspoken pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett continues to insist that Kolbe be coaxed toward a conversion – even if would require time and patience – to scrumhalf, where he believes his elusive qualities and array of footballing skills are better suited physically; he would almost certainly be less prone to forceful batterings in a defensive capacity.

    There have been widely divergent reactions to Mallett’s theory, and I confess to mixed feelings personally; Kolbe’s weaving, thrillingly swift counter-attacks from the big, open space at fullback remain a thing of beauty.

    South African rugby needs every free spirit, every X-factor guy it can get.

    But I also wince, as others probably do, when he is lying motionless on the deck, surrounded by cautious, stabilising medical personnel after a crack to the head.

    There may be no risk yet, but I would hate to see Kolbe’s career shortened.

    And I sometimes wonder if a switch to No 9 may eventually occur more through medical wisdom rather than pure rugby positional debate …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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