Toulon have turned to Springbok sensation Cheslin Kolbe to reignite their status as the best club team in France and in Europe – and it is the South African connection that Toulon hope will add the Midas touch to a club whose glory years between 2013 and 2015 aligned with the impact of some of South Africa’s finest rugby players, writes Mark Keohane.
Joe van Niekerk was the South African pioneer at Toulon, with the inspirational Van Niekerk describing his seven years at Toulon as the best rugby years of his life and among the best years of his life.
Van Niekerk, post retirement, has traded Toulon for an organic farm in Costa Rica, but any interview you read on Van Niekerk will undoubtedly have a lot of love in it for Toulon, the rugby club and especially for the rugby-following people of Toulon.
Iconic Springboks Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith are engraved into Toulon folklore, as is Van Niekerk, while legendary Springboks Bryan Habana and Danie Rossouw are another South African duo who finished glorious careers in style at Toulon.
Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth joined Toulon two years ago and is destined to add his name to the South African engravings that will permanently be a part of Toulon rugby and Duane Vermeulen starred for Toulon in his 68 match stint between 2015 and 2018.
Lemaitre, in confirming Kolbe’s arrival, said that extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, which is why the club was prepared to pay R30 million to buy out Kolbe from his final two years at rival French club Toulouse.
‘We promised ourselves that we would be less dependent on internationals because we paid a heavy price last season. But this is an exception made for an exceptional player in Cheslin Kolbe. A lot of things are now favourable to Toulon. It really is an exceptional opportunity, especially since we needed a game winner in the backline. For a more average player, we would not have done it.’
The South African flavour is strong at Toulon and there has always been an appetite to invest in quality South African players, primarily because of the example set by Van Niekerk back in 2008.
Van Niekerk, despite playing 50 Tests for the Springboks, was without a contract when Toulon offered him a career lifeline and the player, affectionately called ‘Big Joe’ back then, embraced the French culture, learned the language and went back to every basic in his play that made him the best under 21 player in the world and among the best Test players when in peak form.
Van Niekerk was the catalyst of proving what was possible at Toulon and his early years working with former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga were the foundations of Toulon’s European dominance between 2013 and 2015, when they won the Heineken Cup three years in succession and also won the French domestic Top 14.
Van Niekerk, who would captain Toulon for the greater deal of his 122 appearances, has a cult following at Toulon, and it is the type of following the Toulon executive believe Kolbe will have because of his match-winning exploits.
Kolbe has been electric for Toulouse for the past four years, and there is absolute confidence in Toulon that he will replicate his form at the famed Stade Mayol.
‘I had my best years in Toulon. I have so much love for that place. The people are so fanatical about rugby. My time at Toulon was a magical experience. I was able to completely focus on rugby,’ said Van Niekerk. ‘The coach at the time was Tana Umaga, who for me was one of the ultimate players and guides. I used to call him the predator because he was just a beast. He showed so much faith in me. For the first year and a half I played for a lot less financially. The experience stripped me of everything, which was good. It took me down a level to the basics and I had to rebuild. I learned the language and immersed myself in French culture. As I became entrenched at the club, I was appointed captain. I saw myself more as an orchestrator who could bring energy when needed.’
Van Niekerk arrived in 2008 and left in 2014 and his final years coincided with Botha and Juan Smith’s most powerful years at Toulon.
— #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) June 24, 2021
Botha brought a very different type of energy to the Toulon set-up and his raw power and appetite for contact made him an instant favourite among the locals. Botha bled for Toulon and made visitors to the Stade Mayol bleed. He was the Enforcer turned Butcher.
Juan Smith had a different type of presence, more understated but no less powerful and Rossouw’s 26 matches in his final two seasons also ended with European glory.
South Africa’s record-breaking winger Habana would also experience the joys of being Europe’s best and he would play 66 times for Toulon.
Smith, signed as medical joker in 2013 on a one-year contract, was so good that he resigned and played out his career at Toulon in 2017 after 96 appearances, while Botha’s spell from 2011 to 2015 covered 73 matches, countless memories and three European titles and one domestic championship win.
Botha, a 2007 World Cup winner, who joined Toulon when 32 years-old, insisted that he never went to the club on a lucrative pension package.
‘I went to Toulon to create history and we did,’ tweeted Botha after the former French national team and Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte described Botha as the greatest player he had ever coached and his rugby idol.
Botha said he was humbled and proud of his Toulon legacy and said the people of Toulon would always be in his heart.
— #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) June 10, 2021
Kolbe, his legacy already ensured at Toulouse, has the rare opportunity to be as big a success at Toulon, and it is an opportunity the rugby people of Toulon are convinced will translate into championship-winning performances.
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