CAPE TOWN – It is an incredible statistic that Cheslin Kolbe has started just 10 Test matches and played just 14 times for the Springboks in the past two seasons. Kolbe is the hottest player in world rugby and he is tearing it up in Europe, as he did at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Finally, just maybe finally, Kolbe’s class and impact will forever kill off the stigma that the little guys who play in the back three don’t have a future in South African rugby.
While National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is in charge, size won’t be a consideration. Skill and class will be the primary motivations in any talent identification.
The next generation Kolbe, who blitzes the opposition in the schools and under 20 system also won’t have to revert to playing scumhalf or move overseas to get a crack at professional rugby.
Former Western Province, Stormers and Springboks wing Breyton Paulse was the pioneer of pint sized South African wingers in the professional era. Yet, despite 26 tries in 64 Test matches between 1999 and 2007, Paulse fought an ongoing battle to prove that skill trumps size.
Paulse played in the era of the incomparable Jonah Lomu, and fronted the big man in Super Rugby and Test rugby, yet there was always more focus on why Paulse was vulnerable and never enough on why he was a magician.
South African coaches traditionally have opted for size and even when the smaller men were prospering at provincial and Super Rugby, it was never enough to convince the national coaches that these attacking qualities would comfortably be translated into the Test arena.
Brent Russell was one of the original ‘Pocket Rockets’ when Harry Viljoen briefly coached the Springboks in 2001. Viljoen’s backline assistant was Australian Tim Lane and all he saw was Russell’s game-breaking ability.
Unfortunately, when Viljoen resigned after just one season in charge and Lane departed to coach Super Rugby, it was also the end of any sustained investment in Russell’s international career.
Gio Aplon was another of the potent ‘Pocket Rockets’ whose national selection ambitions were undermined because of a perceived lack of size. I could never understand Aplon’s limited Test match career because he was as strong as any giant defensively and lacked nothing in courage or bravery.
Aplon and Kolbe thrilled when playing for Western Province and the Stormers, but despite Kolbe playing 46 matches for Western Province and 49 for the Stormers between 2012 and 2017, Springbok coaches Heyneke Meyer and Allistair Coetzee didn’t believe Kolbe had the game to be a Test player.
Kolbe was encouraged to pursue a Sevens career but insisted his future was as a winger in the traditional 15-a-side. He was outstanding playing for the South African Sevens team at the 2016 Olympics, which led to former Bok coach Nick Mallett suggesting that Kolbe revert to scrumhalf if he was to play Test rugby.
Mallett has always defended his comments by qualifying that his suggestion around Kolbe playing scrumhalf was because of a lack of depth at scrumhalf in South Africa. Mallett said it had nothing to do with Kolbe’s size and that is was more a recognition of the player’s skill set because he always felt Kolbe was good enough to adapt to playing in a No 9 jersey.
Ironically, Kolbe played the last 10 minutes of the 2019 Rugby Championship decider against Argentina at scrumhalf when Faf de Klerk was yellow-carded and in his three seasons at French giants Toulouse, Kolbe has played scrumhalf, wing, flyhalf and fullback. He has on occasion done the goalkicking and in recent weeks even been used as a kick-off receiver jumper.
No back three player in the game has generated such global excitement since All Blacks fullback Christian Cullen.
The French rugby media a year ago voted Kolbe the best foreign Top 14 investment in the past decade. He has won every individual accolade in French rugby, doing exactly what he was doing for Western Province and the Stormers.
Kolbe’s step is unmatched in world rugby and his brilliance in bamboozling Ulster’s Irish international winger Jacob Stockdale was a mirror image of what he did to England captain Owen Farrell in the 2019 World Cup final.
There is no backline player currently as good as Kolbe in world rugby and every time he steps inside a defender, he makes another giant stride for the argument that good enough is big enough.