Cheslin Kolbe dispels doubts with big talent

Toulouse's Cheslin Kolbe Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

The marriage between southern hemisphere star and Top 14 suitor isn’t always harmonious.

For every one that clicks, there is a clutch that end in acrimony and bitter divorce and the blame doesn’t always lie with the man picking up the pay cheque. Ask anyone who has played in France and they will know of someone given a raw deal by their employers.

Cheslin Kolbe and Toulouse, though? Getting along famously.

Toulouse had just posted an embarrassing 12th-place finish in the league when the South African arrived in the Pink City in the summer of 2017 from the Stormers, his Springbok dreams seemingly over before they began, due in the main to a distrust of his diminutive size.

Kolbe knew the club was at a low ebb when he signed.

They had first tried to land him in 2013 but he kept them in mind, speaking to the club’s former South African Jano Vermaak who explained that the history, the culture, the players and the coaches were all there and ready and able to turn it around.

Just over 18 months after his arrival and Stade Toulousain are a side reborn. Sitting second in the Top 14 through 14 rounds, they come to Dublin this weekend looking to fend off Leinster’s bid to storm the summit of Pool One in the Heineken Champions Cup.

A lightning fast 5’ 6” wing/full-back, Kolbe has done his bit in that. He has made a mockery of suggestions that he was too small to operate effectively at the highest level, his defence has stood up to the big, bad world of the Top 14 and his attacking abilities are jaw-dropping.

He is their X-factor, their James Lowe, and his route to the top has been a bit different too.

Kolbe came from the crime-riddled Cape Town suburb of Scottsville. A cousin of the reigning Olympic and World 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk, he actually went to Brackenfell High School on an athletics scholarship and had to leave South Africa to play Test rugby for his country.

A path less travelled.

Online video clips of his stepping abilities, electric pace and nose for an intercept are multiplying and he was finally called up by the Boks last year when Rassie Erasmus scrapped the rule that overseas players must have previously played 30 times or more to play for the national side.

His Test debut duly came off the bench in the loss to Australia in Brisbane and six more caps and two tries have followed. Among them was a starring role and crucial intercept score against the All Blacks in that famous South African win in Wellington.

Bok fans are entitled to thank their stars. His father Andrew had claimed that his son contemplated declaring for France one day under residency rules but Kolbe himself swerved that suggestion as he would a tackle from a lumbering lock this week.

The dream, he insisted, was always layered in green and gold and there is a very good chance he could be posted on the right wing if, as expected, Ireland and South Africa meet in Japan later this year. Whatever of that, their progress under Erasmus is obvious.

Coach Rassie is a good human being,” Kolbe explained. “He thinks about every player and their background, he takes all that into account. He interacts very well with all the players, on and off the field, and he is technically very good. He is a thinker of the game.

Calling Kolbe up must have been a no-brainer.

Leinster saw just how elusive he can be when losing in Toulouse in October: there was one point in the second-half when he sidestepped both Luke McGrath and Josh van der Flier within a split-second of each other and in the sort of space a rug would cover.

Too small? Too fast, more like it.

“I’ve always heard the doubts about me because of my size, that I wasn’t big enough for professional rugby or for international level,” he told the Irish Examiner this week. “My dad always said to just keep having fun, that every person was the same with two arms and two legs.

“Dad always said that the guy with the best belief and attitude would come through and that I should do everything I could to ensure that I was ready physically. You don’t need to be 1.9m or 100kg. It doesn’t matter how big you are.

I see my size as an opportunity. People should move away from size. Rugby has evolved. It makes sense that if you run around someone and not into them that it has to be good for your career. You will play longer.

Kolbe has done everything possible to ensure that.

Only 23 when he moved to France, he opted for a home in the countryside and away from the bright lights of the big city with his wife Layla and their now 21-month-old daughter Kylah. His idea of a good time is kicking back with his family and giving in to a bar of chocolate.

“I wanted to justify the money Toulouse had paid for me as quickly as possible,” he said.

No-one can say that hasn’t been the case.

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