Mark Keohane, in a new series, selects his best Springboks since 1992 and the World XV he would pick to front this green machine in his dream Test match. Today’s pick is at No 14.
Cheslin Kolbe was sensational against the All Blacks in a losing battle at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. He was equally influential in the final against England, but this time it was in a winning cause.
Kolbe, 26 years-old, has started just 10 Tests in 14 international appearances and it took him to leave South Africa for Toulouse in France before his all-round brilliance was recognised with a Test selection. Kolbe, like wing predecessors Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon, always had to battle the South African rugby prejudice of being perceived to be too small for an international winger. He was consistently good for Western Province and Stormers in his first five seasons as a professional but no Bok coach believed he had the physical presence to be a Springbok. David conquered Goliath in every sense when moving to Toulouse and playing in Europe. Kolbe was equally imposing when playing for the Springboks.
Kolbe’s rugby reminds me so much of All Blacks fullback Christian Cullen and currently he is the best stepper in the game, with his side-stepping ability as good as anything I saw from England and British Lions winger Jason Robinson and Welsh and Lions winger Shane Williams, who were two of the most potent steppers in world rugby.
Kolbe, if you ask any Bok fan now, has no equal and never has had an equal in the Bok No 14 jersey. You think Bok right wingers and you think 2019 World Cup and the dazzling try-scoring finish in which he embarrassed England captain Owen Farrell’s defence en-route to the try.
Kolbe is electric and he has been a breath of fresh air. He has had an enormous impact and I hope we see him take his 2019 World Cup form into the 2023 World Cup, when he should be at the peak of his playing ability.
But age tends to dumb down the memory and numb the senses. Out of sight is out of mind.
Allow me to refresh your memory on a few other Springbok No 14s, who since 1992, have produced thrilling, heroic, courageous and brilliant performances. Each one of the names was at one stage rated among the best in the World.
Paulse was a crowd favourite and he really had to fight the fight of the small guy. Paulse, then among the smallest wingers in world rugby, found himself against the biggest of them all Jonah Lomu (at Super Rugby and Test level), and he never looked out of place or overawed. To the contrary, Paulse sang a tune more than he ever stuttered over his lines. He also embarrassed many a defence with his step and acceleration. He had pace and he also had a wonderful understanding of support running lines. I was at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, when he scored the only try of the 1999 World Cup third and fourth play-off win against the All Blacks. Paulse, in difficult playing conditions, produced a super solo effort with a try that proved the difference in a 22-18 Boks win. Paulse also had to contend with outright racism, the insult of being called a quota player and so many bigots questioning his right to selection because he was the best. He showed incredible mental resolve and one of the most beautiful attributes for me is that the guy who first played for the Boks is very much the same individual who today is a SuperSport rugby analyst. Paulse, in an eight-year Test career, started 58 in 64 matches, scored 26 tries and experienced victory against all 14 international opponents and won five times in 13 Tests against the All Blacks.
I was in the press box for most of Paulse’s Test matches and also experienced his character during my time as Springboks Communications Manager from 2000 to 2003. Don’t underestimate his impact when assessing some of the great Bok players since 1992.
James Small is the original post 1992 right winger. He was the rebel with or without a cause, depending on the moment. I was there for Small’s first Test in 1992, his first Test try in 1992 and also when he set a then all-time Springbok try-scoring record at Murrayfield in Scotland. I loved Small’s on-field aggression and the passion he had for the game. He is always remembered for his defensive effort in the 1995 World Cup final against the All Blacks but the reality is he was required to only make one tackle on big Jonah, which he did. There was so much more to Small’s 47 Test, 20 try Bok career. From the years 1992 to 1997, Small could do no wrong and if you asked Bok supporters back then to rate the best Bok No 14, Small’s name would have been first on the list.
No sooner had Small been axed and his replacement Stefan Terblanche would score four tries on debut in Bloemfontein against Ireland. Once again, I was fortunate to be in the press box reporting on the Test. I, along with other South African rugby writers, had nailed the then Bok coach Nick Mallett for ending Small’s international career. When Terblanche scored his quartet of tries, Mallett singled us out and wanted to know if we had anything to say. We were unanimous, Small’s international end was premature and had nothing to do with rugby. Terblanche would similarly lose favour with Harry Viljoen during my time with the Boks, but Mallett always believed in Terblanche and got the best out of a player he had also coached in his earliest days at Boland. Terblanche rarely disappointed and his 37 Test career, in which 19 tries were scored is more unheralded than should be the case. Terblanche was a bloody good Test winger, a superb finisher and courageous on defence. He is known for the four tries against Ireland and five in one Test against Italy, but when I think of Terblanche I think of his defence against the All Blacks in the famous 13-3 win in Wellington in 1998. Terblanche stood firm against a rampant Jonah Lomu and any other All Blacks sent his way. Don’t forget his contribution when thinking about Bok No 14s.
There have been cameo performances from several other wingers, with some lasting only a few matches and others having their careers ended through injury. Here I think of Ashwin Willemse, in particular, whose groin and knees weren’t as strong as his mind.
Small, in 1995, is a World Cup winner. So too Kolbe in 2019, but the Bok right winger who has made the biggest impact on me since 1992 is JP(R) Pietersen, a 6ft3 monster, whose attack won him plaudits, but whose wing defence was unrivalled among South Africa’s wingers. England coach and 2007 Rugby World Cup Springboks Technical Specialist Eddie Jones told me that what defined Pietersen was his understanding of defence and his ability to be so far ahead of how the opposition attack would play out. Jones lauded Pietersen’s functional intelligence on a rugby field, when it came to how he read the game. Wing play, Jones said to me in conversation, was not just about the bloke scoring tries, but about the one ensuring none are scored. Pietersen’s cross cover tackle midway through the second half in the quarter-final of the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against Fiji in Marseilles was the most significant moment in the Boks’ play-off matches. I was in the stands that Sunday afternoon. The day earlier I was there when England knocked out Australia and that evening, along with 30 000 French lunatics, I watched from the port of Marseilles as France dumped the All Blacks out of the World Cup. The majority of the Marseilles crowd wanted Fiji to complete the tri-factor and send the last of the southern hemisphere big three home. The Boks started well but Fiji, early in the second half, got on a roll and scored two quick tries. They were on their way to scoring a third try within five minutes and it took Pietersen’s defence to stop it. As Jones said afterwards, most wingers would not have had a game awareness to have been in a position to make the tackle.
Pietersen, named after the Welsh legendary fullback of the 1970s JPR Williams, started 65 of his 70 Tests, won a World Cup gold and bronze, played in 17 World Cup matches over three tournaments and was consistently the number one right wing in the Springboks for a decade.
He is my pick for the best Bok No 14 since 1992.
WATCH: PIETERSEN HIGHLIGHTS
All Blacks wing John Kirwan was without comparison from 1985 to 1990. I got to report on Kirwan when he played against the Springboks at Ellis Park in 1992 and in the three Tests he played against the Springboks in New Zealand in 1994. They would also prove to be his last Test matches. Kirwan, from 1992 to 1994, was at the tail end of his career. I did get to watch Kirwan front the man-child Jonah Lomu in the New Zealand Probables versus Possible trial match in 1994. Lomu, then just 19 years-old, was a monster but the veteran JK stood his ground and the contest ended with each player getting a try and no clear victor. That night also saw another youngster Jeff Wilson emerge and he would go onto be one of the best right wingers in the professional era. I was very blessed to watch some exceptional right wingers play against the Springboks and to play in Super Rugby. The Frenchman Vincent Clerc was a class act, Australia’s Chris Latham and Ben Tune were world class, on either wing, and it didn’t seem to matter who the All Blacks picked on either wing, they’d come close to making a World XV. Joe Rokocoko, equally comfortable on the left or right wing, record All Blacks try-scorer Doug Howlett, 2011 World Cup winners Corey Jane and Israel Dagg, who also played fullback, and Ben Smith, another to be on the wing or fullback, had lengthy and impressive careers. Wales’s George North was Lomu-like in his early years and England’s Jason Robinson, be it at fullback or wing, tore defences apart. Ieuan Evans from Wales was another who make the red jersey his own. I also enjoyed Australia’s Wendell Sailor’s impact when he converted from League to Union but his career was cut short because of a cocaine suspension. I had the good fortune to be in a job that allowed me to be at stadiums all over the world and in South Africa watching these remarkable talents.
Fiji produces wingers like South Africa does loose-forwards and if they aren’t playing for Fiji, the very best have at times made it into the England, Australian, All Blacks and French team.
Yet, I’ve never seen anything like Rupeni Caucaunibuca when he played for the Blues in Super Rugby and in his early years for Fiji. The only thing more amusing than watching defenders try and stop him was listening to former Scotland and Springboks hooker John Allan trying to pronounce Caucaunibuca’s name.
While Caucaunibuca played primarily on the left wing, his versatility allowed him to wing it on the right, playing in a Blues side that boasted himself, Doug Howlett and Joe Rockococo, with all three players interchanging. Jonah Lomu, without doubt, places as my number one left winger in the international arena since 1992, yet a World XV to take on the greatest ever Bok XV would need both Lomu and Caucaunibuca in their back three. In light of this, Caucaunibuca takes my pick at right wing.
He was electric in the only two matches he played at the 2003 World Cup and every bit as impactful as he had been for the Super Rugby Championship-winning Blues earlier in the season.
Caucaunibuca would only play seven Tests for Fiji and one for the Pacific Islanders in 10 years as he opted for a professional club career in France’s Top 14, where he played mostly for Agen before returning to New Zealand in 2013 to play a final season for Northland.
The great irony in Caucaunibuca’s career is that he turned down the All Blacks in 2002 to play for his birth country Fiji, but then would rarely be seen in a Fijian jersey because of ongoing issues with the administration, teammates and because of the lure of dedicating his career to the cash-seductive French Top 14.
WATCH: CAUCAUNIBUCA HIGHLIGHTS