Former Springbok coach Jake White used to say that if he had “15 Ashwins” – referring to the industry and brilliance of former winger Ashwin Willemse – he would win every game of rugby the Springboks played.
Current Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has every right to paraphrase that statement and swap Willemse’s name with Cheslin Kolbe. About 14 700km from Kraaifontein, where Kolbe, 25, was born, the 1.71m dynamo tore up New Zealand in Japan in a way that gave a glimpse into the impact he will have, not just on the Springboks’ chances to win the Rugby World Cup, but also on the psyche of South African rugby.
Kolbe grew up playing games and chasing balls in the street with his cousin Wayde van Niekerk, the Olympics 400m record holder. He could have tried his luck at a track event, which would have shown off the genetic gifts that course through his and Van Niekerk’s veins, but rugby was his passion.
Like most passions, they can take much from you and give little, especially in the beginning. However, if you persevere, handsome rewards lie in wait. Although he was outstanding as a Junior Springbok, playing anywhere between flyhalf to fullback, and winning a bronze medal with the SA Sevens team in Rio, a Bok cap seemed lost for good when he decided to take his talents to France.
Inspired by a man of similar build, the 1.75m former Springbok Gio Aplon, Kolbe set himself up to become what Aplon was: a Formula One car, fighting its way through the traffic of a monster truck arena.
And that’s what rugby is for smaller guys like Kolbe and Aplon: a struggle to be seen and to be acknowledged. Like Aplon, Kolbe took France by storm, weaving past gaps a needle wouldn’t penetrate.
Too small for his position
But by the stroke of Erasmus’ out-the-box thinking, Kolbe was handed a Bok lifeline in last year’s Rugby Championship and played a decisive role in the Springboks’ shock win over the All Blacks in Wellington, in only his second Test.
Kolbe has been told that he was too small to play rugby. On the eve of the World Cup in Japan, former Springbok coach Nick Mallett reiterated his belief that Kolbe should move to scrumhalf – the only position in the entire 15 that’s demarcated for a “wee fella”. Mallett had said, years before Kolbe made his Springbok debut, that he needed to move to scrumhalf if he ever had hopes of becoming a Bok.
At Yokohama, in a losing cause against rivals the All Blacks, Kolbe was the best player of any position, in either of the two teams. He ducked, dived, tackled and exploded through the black New Zealand wall.
He came within a Willie le Roux-misplaced pass and a smart Richie Mo’unga tackle from turning the tide in favour of South Africa. Rugby has all manner of different shapes and sizes, working in unison, for the common goal of winning the match.
Men of heavy stone – Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and Tendai Mtawarira – can share the locker room with men of bean pole – RG Snyman, Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth – and they need each other to achieve their goal.
If you go back slightly in time, only rugby could make an athlete out of Martin Johnson, Bakkies Botha, Jerry Collins, Taulupe Faletau, Devin Toner and the like. They were freakishly tall and heavy men and rugby welcomed them with dreamy eyes.
“They used to chant at me: ‘Go join the circus!’” said former English international footballer Peter Crouch, speaking about the effects fan bullying had on his mental state when he was trying to make it as a striker. They also told him to, “go play rugby, or something”. They meant it as an egregious insult but, knowing rugby, it would have welcomed a 2m tall athlete with open arms.
No country for small men
In South Africa, though, big men weren’t just accepted, they ruled. For more than a century of rugby, they were the kings. Sure, the speedy, skilful players got all the back page action images of themselves diving over the try line ever week, but the big men made it possible for them.
Physical dominance was not just the mantra applied to the first eight numbers on the 15-man starting sheet, it spilled to the other so-called creative positions.
A first centre who evolved over time to stop being an auxiliary creative maestro to the pivot, he became a ninth bulldozer, doing the job eight other men on the field were employed to do.
South Africa all but invented 10-man rugby. The Bulls profited from the system and so did the Springboks as a result. It didn’t help that in New Zealand the late Jonah Lomu had taken wing play to a new stratosphere with a deadly combo of size and speed.
What you could do with your bare hands, in South Africa, far outweighed what you could do with your beautiful mind. But change, as we know with the history of human evolution, is the only constant.
Basketball, for instance, favours athletes who are 2m and some change tall. But over its history, a few players have shaped the game to favour some smaller, more skillful guys. These were players such as Isaiah Thomas, Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb. They were point guards and their whole game was centred around making plays for the big men.
They got fair recognition and made it into the NBA Hall of Fame but they didn’t transform the game completely. That was until Steph Curry – a “mere” 1.91m tall – came along. He flipped a switch nobody thought existed, let alone could be activated.
Dismantling bias against small players
Curry created an NBA-changing philosophy whereby the smaller guys, the point guard and the shooters, shaped how teams played and how they thought they could win championships. And so, the Steph Curry of South African rugby stepped onto the field against New Zealand and went about dismantling the long-held bias against the smaller rugby players.
New Zealand’s hot new wingers Sevu Reece and George Bridge might have caused incredible damage were they not stopped, at different stages of the match, by ball-and-all Kolbe tackles.
There was a point, too, where Kolbe put down one man and when they offloaded to Reece, he took him down too. He was everywhere. He answered all manner of doubt about his defending.
And on attack, he was the Trojan Horse that infiltrated Troy. The only pity was that it could not be enough to bring victory to the South Africans but it was a transcendent moment – one that will make all future Kolbes believe they can walk among giants.