Cheslin Kolbe’s record-breaking transfer from Toulouse to Toulon is a triumph for skill in a game obsessed with physicality and size, writes Mark Keohane. But don’t forget Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon.
Kolbe’s magical moments on the field are an inspiration but it is his story from Stormers discard to international drawcard that will inspire the next generation of fleet-footed and skilled players who don’t weigh 100-plus kilograms when they hit puberty.
Every time Kolbe does something out of the ordinary, the headline reads that it is a victory for the little guy in a game primarily catering to giants.
I’ve been guilty of adding a few of those headlines to copy in the past few years when it comes to Kolbe, but on reflection it is not about size but about skill.
To appreciate Kolbe’s international recognition and reward, one has to go back to the likes of Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon in being world-class players that never quite got the acknowledgement their talent demanded.
Aplon was always one of my favourite players and he is one of Kolbe’s.
Kolbe, on the 23rd August, 2019, posted this one word on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.
It was power and it referred to Aplon.
Kolbe, when he posted that tribute, had yet to win a World Cup, win a British & Irish Lions series and had yet to wow the world on an international stage.
But the world’s best paid rugby player and biggest entertainer never stopped believing because of players like Aplon, with the latter never taking a step back in the tackle and doing some amazing things with ball in hand.
It is incredulous that Aplon only played 17 Tests for the Springboks between 2010 and 2012. He did the unimaginable at times during his 180 matches for the Stormers and Western Province and was as appealing to the French rugby public when playing for Grenoble for five years and in Japan for three years.
Aplon, who turns 40 next year, is part of the Bulls set-up, although two serious injuries have curtailed his game time over the past 18 months.
Paulse came before Aplon and while he made his mark at Test level, the applause for Paulse’s 26 tries in 64 Tests always seemed begrudging and every compliment was bracketed with a doubt.
I never understood it because Paulse opposed the biggest frame of them all in Jonah Lomu at Super Rugby and Test level and handled the occasion better than most Lomu played against.
It seems crazy that Kolbe, for all his genius, has only played 18 Tests for the Springboks, but that number is the reality check to fully appreciate the battle Kolbe has had to convince South Africans and Springbok coaches of his worth.
Kolbe never had this battle when joining French club Toulouse, whose coaches and whose supporters and media instantly recognised the class of Kolbe, the side-stepping feet, the quick hands, the explosiveness in attack and the bravery in defending the tryline.
Kolbe won every award there was to win in his first three seasons at Toulouse and won France’s prestigious Top 14 title, as well as the European title. Ask any foreigner who has played in France and they will tell you the Top 14 trophy is the one every club supporter wants to win with the Bouclier de Brennus (the piece of wood) first competed for in 1892. It carries more prestige than being champions of Europe.
Kolbe a few weeks ago transferred from Toulouse to Toulon and the big-spending Toulon were willing to spend near R40 million in buying Kolbe out of his final two years at Toulouse.
Toulon, whose glory years were between 2013 and 2015, have put all their eggs in the basket of Kolbe to return the club to those record-breaking years.
The Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre told the media they would never have spent the money on any other player before adding that Kolbe was not just any other player.
Toulon’s president has boasted that the club have invested in a giant of a rugby player; one whose impact they believe will win them trophies, and when they talk about the giant, they talk about the skill and game-breaking size of Kolbe.
And therein is the most inspiring story for any 80-kilogram skilled schoolboy back who gets told he needs to weigh 100 kilograms to make it.
Kolbe, right now, is the biggest presence in world rugby, and it has nothing to do with his size and everything to do with his skill set.
Also on www.keo.co.za