Not since Asterix the Gaul went to Britain to help his first cousin Anticlimax fight the Romans has such a diminutive figure crossed the Channel so well equipped to embarrass the big boys. No subtitles are required when Cheslin Kolbe is in full flight, to the point where even the little legend himself is not entirely sure where his magical footwork is going to take him.
Listen, byvoorbeeld, to the South African World Cup winner’s admission that, mostly, he has no clear plan in mind when he sets off with ball in hand. “Sometimes I’m not too sure what I’m going to be doing. My body just completely takes over. At times I do look at body language or how defenders are approaching, to work out whether to step them or swerve completely infield. But sometimes I watch clips of myself getting out of trouble and I don’t know what I was thinking. I just try to use what I’ve been blessed with – my feet, the bit of speed I’ve got – to not get smashed. It’s pure instinct, I think.”
In a rugby era mostly populated by Obelix-size giants, that could be the most refreshing quote of the season. Alternatively, if you happen to be a British & Irish Lion winger, it will rank as the most disconcerting. You say the pocket rocket opposite is governed by an unseen, uncontrollable power even he cannot reliably predict? Give me a straight-running big guy any day.
To rewatch the 73rd minute of the World Cup final against England is to experience fresh sympathy for any isolated La Rochelle defenders confronted by Toulouse’s game-breaker this weekend. Owen Farrell is not normally left clutching at air but the brilliant gamechanging right-foot step that left England’s captain flat on the Yokohama turf would have bamboozled anyone.
It also begged a question: is rugby in general doing enough to promote its most thrilling assets? Here is a world-class athlete capable of changing games in the twinkling of an eye. Written off as too small in his younger days, he is an inspiration to every kid of modest stature. Yet if the 27-year-old were to wander down Twickenham high street before the Heineken Champions’ Cup final, minus headguard and kit, how many locals would recognise him? Kolbe City it is not.
Maybe all that will be irrelevant history by the middle of August. With a World Cup winners’ medal in the bag, the 5ft 7 1/2in tall Springbok is in a position to complete a unique quadruple haul – the Webb Ellis trophy, European Cup, French Top 14 title and a Lions series win – within 21 maande.
Even his much-decorated teammate Jerome Kaino, with whom he enjoyed Toulouse’s Top 14 title success in 2019, could not manage the latter and Kolbe needs no telling how special this summer’s tour – Covid permitting – could be. “2009 was the year I first got my provincial colours and the same year the Lions last toured South Africa. That’s when I definitely fell more and more in love with the game. Watching it on television, all the supporters in red jerseys … I’ve never seen South Africa as crazy as it was. For us as players you definitely want an opportunity to be part of that.”
While the Springboks have not played a minute of rugby since their Yokohama triumph, Kolbe does not believe it will necessarily impact on their prospects. “I’m actually quite excited to see how the boys are going to be … once you pull on that green and gold jersey you leave everything out there on the field.” In his case rust will not be a problem: a table-topping Toulouse back division oozing pace and class is not a bad place in which to sharpen your instincts.
Kolbe is also one of those players whose motivation comes from within. Growing up in the unfashionable northern Cape Town suburb of Kraaifontein, the crackle of gang-related gunfire was the norm. Sy vader, Andrew, was a decent inside-centre but never had the opportunities in the apartheid era to discover how far he could progress. A relatively tough upbringing has hardened his son’s resolve. “It made me into a player who wanted to succeed each and every time I took the field.
“My footwork is definitely partly down to playing in the streets, hanging out with my friends and being competitive with the big boys. When my dad played his club rugby, I’d always play touch rugby with him … I’d get smashed, stepped and handed off but that’s what I did every single week. I think that definitely helped me in terms of developing the talent that I can now showcase to the rest of the world.”
As a 15-year-old trialist, egter, he was told he was too small; it was a similar story at senior level where he grew weary of people pigeonholing him and trying to turn him into a scrum-half. A bronze medal in sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics was a nice consolation but his stint in France, he believes, has been fundamental to his rise. “Everyone knows about French flair … they just want to play with the ball and give it some air. That’s exactly what I love and what I strive for on the field. The players and the staff have backed me all the way. They gave me the freedom to play what is in front of me. With that freedom you feel at ease with yourself. Toulouse has definitely played a massive part in my success.”
The kid from Kraaifontein – his cousin is the Olympic 400m gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk – is relishing the chance to “have a crack” against his good childhood mate Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule, fellow South African émigrés who, like him, have found fresh rugby impetus abroad. “I’m just glad to see players who had to leave South Africa and come abroad to prove themselves getting the opportunity to showcase their talent. I’ve always had the goal and the dream to wear the Springbok jersey. I never told myself the dream was done, even though there was a rule at that stage that you had to have 30 caps for the Springboks to be called back.” These days any team in the world would pick him if they could.