'Every player has two arms and two legs'
EUROPEAN CUP SPOTLIGHT: When Toulouse face off with Exeter Chiefs in the Champions Cup semifinal at Sandy Park on Saturday, the smallest player will also be the most recognisable.
That was not the case when Cheslin Kolbe, now 26, first arrived in Toulouse in 2017.
In an interview with The XV website, the now-iconic World Cup winner explained how he overcame the prejudices against his diminutive size – just 171 centimetres and 80 kilogrammes.
With four tries in his first six league matches for the aristocrats of French rugby, Kolbe had convinced some of the club’s more misty-eyed fans that perhaps, just perhaps, here was the genius a bedraggled Toulouse so desperately needed.
The previous season the four-times European champions had had a serious flirtation with the Top 14 relegation zone, eventually finishing 12th, their worst position in the professional era.
Crowds were down, so was commercial revenue and the morale of the squad was also at rock bottom.
So what on earth possessed Kolbe to sign for Toulouse?
The challenge of playing in a different league, he told The XV, and experiencing a new culture.
So far, so predictable, but there was more.
The failure to breakthrough into the Springboks team had, in Kolbe’s own words, left him “sad”.
Selected by Allister Coetzee for the tour of England, Italy and Wales in November 2016, Kolbe had failed to break sweat in anger, even against the Barbarians, with the coach preferring the power of Ruan Combrinck and Jamba Ulengo to the searing pace of Kolbe.
“I think it has counted against me,” Kolbe told the website, when asked if his 171cm, and 80kg frame had swayed Coetzee’s selection.
“They [the selectors] look for players who are much bigger, but it motivates me as a player to prove myself.
“Personally, I don’t believe size matters. Every player has two arms and two legs.”
Fast-forward two years to November in Tokyo, and Kolbe takes a pass from Pieter-Steph du Toit wide out on the right wing just inside the England half.
Five men in white shirts are scrambling to tackle the wing into touch. He stands up Joe Marler, powers through the flailing tackle of Owen Farrell and puts on the after-burners to power past Billy Vunipola to score the try that clinched South Africa the World Cup.
It was a try to rival any scored in a final, a work of art by a player who proved Coetzee and all of his doubters over the years wrong – size really doesn’t matter.
‘Personally, I don’t believe size matters. Every player has two arms and two legs‘
“Since I started in professional rugby, I’ve always been criticised and received negative feedback, getting told I was too small and I would never make it,” says Kolbe when we met up for a long-overdue rendezvous this month.
Most of the nay-sayers were on social media; faceless, gutless armchair critics who poison Twitter with their vitriol.
“Getting that at a young age of 18 and 19, it was difficult to read those things, but it never took me off my task in what I wanted to achieve,” he said.
“I remembered the words of my dad who told me ‘listen, there will be people who want you to fail, people who don’t want you to succeed’.
“So I just made sure I did the best I could in terms of training as hard as I could.”