Tuesday 18 June 2019

Cullen wary of ‘electric’ Kolbe’s ability to wreak havoc

 

Cheslin Kolbe has made a big impression since moving from Stormers in South Africa to Toulouse. Photo: Getty Images
Cheslin Kolbe has made a big impression since moving from Stormers in South Africa to Toulouse. Photo: Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

In many ways, Cheslin Kolbe's story is one that echoes CJ Stander's.

Repeatedly told by the Springboks that he was too small to make it as an international rugby player, Kolbe became disillusioned with life in South Africa and decided to head to Europe to reignite his career.

Stander was faced with a similarly narrow-minded attitude as coaches looked to shift him from the back-row to the front-row as a hooker.

The No 8 has gone from strength-to-strength since joining Munster and the manner in which Kolbe has now also proved his doubters wrong is another example that shows there is still room for a fleet-footed magician in an increasingly combative sport.

Like Stander, Kolbe might have gone down a different sporting route had he opted to pursue athletics, which he also excelled at during his school days.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the 25-year-old blaze a trail with Toulouse that he was once a prolific sprinter and hurdler.

There is obviously something in the blood because throughout his childhood Kolbe was driven by a healthy competitive relationship with his cousin Wayde van Niekerk - the current 400m Olympic champion.

Growing up in Scottsville, where the crime-rate is high, sport helped keep Kolbe on the straight and narrow.

He played on the same primary school team as Van Niekerk and by all accounts the pair caused devastating damage with their searing pace.

"Wayde was the fast one all the years and we needed to make sure we got the ball to him, then he just needed to run," Kolbe recalled.

The pair's paths diverged until the 2016 Olympics brought them together again as Kolbe helped South Africa win a bronze in sevens, while his cousin smashed Michael Johnson's 400m world record with a scintillating time of 43.03 seconds.

All in all, it was a rather successful summer for the family.

Despite starring in Rio, Kolbe was still struggling to get recognition from the Springboks and when Toulouse came calling in 2017, it was a no-brainer to opt for the fresh start.

According to his father Andrew, such was the former Stormers winger's disillusionment he looked into representing France via the residency rules.

Just as it seemed Les Bleus would gain a player with huge potential, Rassie Erasmus returned to the helm and saw sense.

"The main thing is that he is an out-and-out 15, I've always felt that he has the potential and ability to be a wonderful Test 15," the former Munster boss said prior to Kolbe making his long-awaited Springboks debut in the Rugby Championship last September.

Appearance

Despite Erasmus' claims, none of Kolbe's seven caps have since come at full-back but rather on the wing, as well as one appearance in the centre.

Toulouse, on the other hand, know a prolific winger when they see one, and the rediscovering of their joie de vivre has helped turn Kolbe into one of the world's most exciting wide men.

He set the Champions Cup alight with his sensational try against Wasps last month, while he regularly bamboozles Top 14 defences.

Leinster know the dangers of kicking loosely to Kolbe and while they will be targeting him defensively, Leo Cullen has warned against his threat.

"You have to pay special attention to him," the Leinster head coach insists.

"You even see at the scrum where he has that step off his left foot and he does Luke McGrath and Josh van der Flier inside him.

"He has electric feet and the step against Toulon when he stops almost dead and scores on the inside. There was the individual try he scored against Wasps as well. Very similar from a scrum, he just beats a couple of defenders, just shrugs them off.

"He has very good footwork in space. He's also very powerful in terms of shrugging guys off. We've seen it first-hand already. We need to be well aware. Hopefully we will be better prepared."

Garry Ringrose will be one of the players tasked with attempting to nullify Kolbe's threat in the wider channels and the Leinster centre warned against the scale of that challenge.

"It's incredibly difficult. It's easy to say but to go and do it; you try grab hold of him and do your best not to let go, because a lot of guys have gone to tackle him and the tackler feels they've made an impact tackle, but he's managed to bounce off and slip through."

Kolbe's electric pace gets him out of trouble, while he is also deceptively strong in contact, which Stuart Lancaster was keen to highlight.

"I've seen him run around, dodge people, and then I saw him score another try where he actually ran through the 10 - just ran over him!

"You think he doesn't look huge but he ran through the middle of a ruck the other day, and he's got incredible feet."

High praise indeed, especially for someone who was told he would never make it at the top, and the feeling is that the best is yet to come.

Irish Independent

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