The diminutive Kolbe was always going to be up against the odds to establish a test career – it is all too easy to write him off based on his small physical stature.
What demand is there for a 1.72cm, 80kg winger at international level? The potential size mismatch puts Kolbe in a box, some would say unfairly, as a defensive liability.
Any coach needs to believe the upside he brings to table outweighs the worries of having a possible turnstile edge defender and few have been prepared to take that risk in the past.
Overlooked by the Springboks after five seasons with the Stormers, the former Sevens star embarked overseas, taking a contract with Toulouse in the Top 14, seemingly leaving behind the possibility of national selection behind.
Despite fears of being ‘swallowed up’ by giant French forwards, the 24-year-old dazzled in his first season and earned the Top 14’s best signing recognition by newpaper Midi Olympique.
A change of selection policy and a change of coach back home has given Kolbe’s international chances a second-life, changing the trajectory of the fleet-footed star’s career in 2018.
Rassie Erasmus has taken the gamble on Kolbe and has been rewarded as the lion-hearted utility back has come up trumps. A crucial intercept try in Wellington helped contribute to the Boks upset win over the All Blacks, while Kolbe continually put his body on the line in defence, coming up with key last-ditch tackles.
There were lapses, but despite being isolated on the edge, Kolbe was able to hold his own against the much bigger Rieko Ioane on one occasion, stopping him one-on-one just metres from the line before support tacklers assisted.
Kolbe’s tackle success rate for the Springboks in his first four tests is 75%, a more than serviceable amount for a wing. Last year’s test starter Raymond Rhule operates in the mid-to-late fifties at Super Rugby level, proving that defence doesn’t really come down to physical stature – it’s an attitude thing.
As long as Kolbe has the right mindset and his mental application is there, he can do the job. It’s something that he himself recognizes as the key to his success.
“I enjoy showing others that you don’t have to only have size, you have to just have the right belief, mindset and attitude to perform just as well as the bigger guy,” said Kolbe earlier this year in an interview with SA Rugby Mag.
He also brings another element to the Springboks defence that fits in with Rassie’s risk/reward defensive ethos – his predatory instincts bring the potential for the Boks to score against the run of play, as illustrated in the Wellington test.
When faced with three-on-ones or two-on-ones, Kolbe is adept at sitting back, jockeying for time and jumping the passing lane when the attacker fails to commit him before passing. It’s something he does time and time again.
— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) September 15, 2018
Faf de Klerk’s high-risk roaming sweeper role is causing chaos for the opposition, while many other Bok defenders often blitz from the outside-in to create pressure. Allowing Kolbe to play with ball-hawking freedom on the edge adds to the risk-reward system Erasmus is building.
Moving past the ill-conceived defensive concerns, there is so much more potential to Kolbe’s inclusion the Springboks, and even Toulouse, haven’t yet scratched the surface on.
The rise of ‘swiss army knife’ wingers, who are multi-positional players, could put Kolbe on a different level.
The transformation of the wing position at Premiership club Exeter Chiefs has given similar players like Jack Nowell and Argentinian Santiago Cordero centre stage roles. Nothing illustrates this more than Cordero’s 20 carries against Castres over the weekend, while Nowell notched 14 himself, as the pair beat a combined 18 defenders. Exeter have revalued utility backs and changed the wing position to great effect.
This ‘gadget’ wing moves around, floating as a multi-purpose back and popping up in different places. Kolbe’s razor-sharp footwork combined with deadly speed presents a weapon that, if used correctly, could cause obscene amounts of problems in the right system.
Cheslin Kolbe could side-step you in a phone box. ? pic.twitter.com/EKGcN8Q9HJ
— The Rugby Club (@_TheRugbyClub) October 13, 2018
At Toulouse and the Springboks, Kolbe is exclusively flanked on the right wing during phase play waiting for ball and space to be given to him. Brief counter-attacking and set-piece opportunities do present, but his limited action is a disservice to his game-breaking ability.
Less can be expected with the national side, as Erasmus has only been in the job a few months, but as they work towards 2019 they have to play to the strengths of the players, which they have already done on the defensive side off the ball.
If you are going to pick a player that is ‘outside the box’, you need to think outside the box with how you use him too.
Argentina has formed their own lethal back three themselves with dynamo pocket-rockets Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano. The 80kg winger at the international level with speed and footwork could soon be a new norm, and Kolbe could be the best of them.
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