Diminutive. Lightweight. Pint-sized. Just three adjectives, or rather negatives, often used to describe the 1.72m, sub-80kg Cheslin Kolbe.
His selection for the Springboks’ Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane this weekend was long overdue for a talented outside back whose size shouldn’t preclude him from Test rugby.
As highlighted in this tribute, Kolbe has been as sensational at Toulouse as he was for the Blitzboks, Stormers and Western Province, and the French media recently hailed the 24-year-old from Kraaifontein as the best foreign import in the Top 14.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ selection of Kolbe for his team’s Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship is a thumb in the eye for SA coaches who’ve considered smaller outside backs like Kolbe, Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon as physical liabilities instead of assets.
Erasmus has tipped Kolbe to make an impact for the Boks off the bench at fullback or wing, and his fresh legs and quick feet should prove troublesome for tiring tacklers regardless of their size. Sound familiar? Brent Russell, the original “Pocket Rocket”, put the “S” in super-sub and his explosive speed, low centre of gravity and lethal sidestep made a mockery of the best defensive structures.
At Rudolf Straeuli’s Bok trials in 2002, Russell came on and delivered an explosive second-half performance at flyhalf to show the then-national boss why he could be as much a force in 15s as he had been in Sevens. The former Sharks and Pumas speedster scored eight tries for the Boks in 23 Tests between 2002 and 2006, but he started only seven.
Russell made four appearances at flyhalf, eight at fullback, 10 at wing and one at centre for the Boks. His brief career in the green-and-gold jersey has been attributed to this versatility and local coaches’ obsession with size.
There’s a concern that Kolbe’s Test career may similarly stutter due to similar prejudice and, like Russell, he has been told by coaches like ex-Bok boss Nick Mallett that he should switch to scrumhalf.
However, Kolbe is a strong kicker, resilient and he has a masochistic approach to been manhandled by bigger rivals – attributes that make him ideally suited to flyhalf.
He is physically similar in stature to All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie (1.75m/81kg), who regularly flicks between flyhalf, fullback and wing for the world champions with the unequivocal support of Kiwi coach Steve Hansen.
Ex-Bok No 10 André Pretorius occasionally moved to fullback to accommodate Russell at pivot, which would also leave Straeuli with other backline options. Erasmus could similarly switch Handré Pollard or Damian Willemse from No 10 to inside centre/fullback respectively for Kolbe, who couldn’t do much worse than the defensively suspect Elton Jantjies in the flyhalf channel.
By calling up Kolbe, Erasmus has won a victory for “the little guy” in SA rugby but he must aim the Boks’ new mini-RPG with more accuracy than his predecessors displayed with the prototype.
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Devin Hermanus works in the SA media industry, does fasted cardio before hitting up a breakfast buffet, and makes an award-winning cameo as an unnamed journo in the “All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks” mini-series.
Follow Devin: @DevinMyles11