MAVERICK SPORT 168
Cheslin Kolbe, a beacon of light in sport’s dark times
He was always told that he was ‘too small’ to play professional rugby, but the Springbok World Cup star never let that assumption keep him from proving to be an inspiration for many. Today, he devotes much of his time and energy to helping others.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Springbok World Cup star Cheslin Kolbe is setting the rugby world alight at French club Toulouse, but it’s his charity work back in SA that keeps him grounded.
Last year, more than a thousand people – young and old, good and bad, most of them jobless or destitute – gathered to form a queue for food and assistance. As the World Cup-winner walked alongside this column, he recognised friends and acquaintances from a past life.
He looked into the face of a man of similar age, and saw a Cheslin Kolbe from a parallel universe staring back. That man had failed to crack it as a professional player and had ultimately become a victim of circumstance.
That dystopian scene is fresh in Kolbe’s mind almost a year later. While the world searches for new superlatives to describe his side step, and while most agree that the South African wing is the most exciting, if not the best, rugby player on the planet, Kolbe is simply grateful for a healthy family as well as a life-changing opportunity at French club Toulouse.
Kolbe begins this interview by saying that he believes in providence. Last year, a two-week holiday in Cape Town was extended by several months after the government implemented the lockdown and closed the borders. If not for that lockdown, Kolbe would have missed a chance to go out into the community with the Be The Difference foundation and help those in need.
“When I saw all that was happening around the country, I thought it was an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive,” Kolbe told DM168.
“I went out to Kraaifontein, where I grew up … and was heartbroken by what I found. As I walked down the queue, I recognised many of the people from my past. It struck me how fast things can change, and how quickly people can change. So many people had lost their jobs and were asking for help. Guys my age were asking me for clothes.
“It made me wonder how things might have been for me if things had turned out differently. That whole experience broke me a bit,” he says.
And yet, as Kolbe confirms, the experience did strengthen his resolve. Though food and money were in patently short supply, there was still hope. “I asked a little boy what he wanted to do when he grew up. Did he have any heroes that he looked up to? I expected him to name a famous sports star. He just looked at me and sang a gospel song.
“That touched me. It’s a terrible situation, but even the smallest and the youngest people out there have their faith. They haven’t lost their fighting spirit. That inspires me, really,” he adds.
“If you had a chance to give someone in that situation anything, whether it’s food or hope, you’ve got to take it. I believe that we made a positive difference during our time in the communities. There were some lighter moments when people smiled and laughed. They voiced their appreciation for what we were doing.”
Social justice ‘icon’
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi has spoken at length about how the 2019 World Cup victory provided him – as well as his teammates – with an opportunity to affect social change on a larger scale. Since the first lockdown was enforced and SA was thrown into turmoil, Kolisi, Tendai Mtawarira, Makazole Mapimpi, Jesse Kriel and others have gone out of their way to help those less fortunate.
Kolisi has explained how his deal with Roc Nation has boosted an ambitious quest for change in South Africa. Since recruiting the inspirational South African skipper, the US-based entertainment company, which was founded by American rapper Jay-Z, has added Kolbe as well as Proteas bowler Lungi Ngidi to its stable of athletes.
“The World Cup win gave me a chance to meet new people, to encourage them to help my cause,” says Kolbe. “I suddenly had a platform to increase my reach and to make a bigger difference in the long term.
“Then Roc Nation, a company that is known throughout the world, approached me. I saw it as another opportunity to help my family, those in my community and anyone in need.
“I know what it feels like to be in that situation, so that’s why I’m working so hard to help. I’ve been blessed with a talent, and now I have to use that gift to inspire others.”
Roc Nation has made it clear that it wants these athletes to become “icons”. It’s a lofty label that doesn’t sit well with humble men like Kolisi or Kolbe. Ultimately, their actions will determine their legacy.
“There is talk about us as icons, but I’m a human being like everyone else. I’m a normal guy, but because of my position I have more responsibility. People are looking up to me … and there’s a big chance here.
“I wanted to be remembered as the guy who gave everything he could to make a difference. There’s so much that needs to be fixed in our country: the Covid-19 situation, gender-based violence, gangsterism … the list is long. I wish I could rectify it all. It’s a process though, and we are committed to seeing it through.”
Nobody should doubt Kolbe’s determination. This is the man who has fought against perceptions regarding his size and ability for much of his career. Six years after his first appearance in professional rugby, he broke into the Springbok team and helped the side to a monumental win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
A year later, Kolbe was the standout player at the World Cup in Japan. The manner in which he beat England captain Owen Farrell in the final to score a decisive try was a statement in itself. Kolbe not only belongs at the highest level but is among the most gifted players of his generation.
And yet, his quest to make a difference on the field is far from over. His will be the first name on the team sheet when the Boks face the British & Irish Lions – whether that series takes place in 2021 or not. And whether he plays for South Africa or Toulouse, he wants to entertain and inspire.
“My dad always told me that you should walk away from the game when you lose your passion for it. We won the World Cup in 2019, and it was a great feeling, but that wasn’t the end for me. I didn’t want to be remembered for one or two good seasons with the Boks. I went into 2020 determined to make a point.
“There’s a lot more I want to achieve, and knowing that there are other kids out there who might be inspired by what I do, who may be encouraged to believe that they can achieve anything through hard work and determination – that really keeps me going.”
Several former Boks inspired Kolbe to believe that a player of modest size and height can succeed in a game that is dominated by giants. Brent Russell and Breyton Paulse challenged perceptions about size and ability in the early 2000s. Gio Aplon carried the baton for small wonders while starring for the Stormers, South Africa, Grenoble, Toyota Verblitz and most recently the Bulls.
But as Kolbe explains, the fight for acceptance is ongoing. “I play this game to prove people wrong,” he says. “A lot of people told me that I was too small to play pro rugby. They said I would never be a Bok.
“I thought about how I could use that negativity in a positive way. They couldn’t tell me who I was or why I couldn’t play. That’s the lesson, if you work hard you will reap the benefits.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not good enough. They don’t have the right to decide who you are or what you will become.”
Fortunately for the player – and indeed for South Africa – one coach believed that Kolbe had what it took to set the world alight. Rassie Erasmus gave Kolbe his first chance with the Boks in 2018, and then encouraged the player to express himself in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
Kolbe says that the words spoken by the Bok coach on the morning of the final will stay with him forever. That message is now part of his personal philosophy.
“What Rassie said blew us away,” Kolbe says. “He went through the team player by player, telling the group about where each individual had come from and, in doing so, telling a greater story. Each individual had struggled to realise his dream, and many players like myself are from a tough background. We had all come a long way, and we were all representing something greater than ourselves.
“There was a bigger picture. 60 million people back in South Africa were behind us. Many of those people faced far greater challenges than a rugby match, on a daily basis. Were we really worried about the pressure of a rugby match when so many people were dealing with pressures like not having any food or a job?
“That message hit home before the final. I have continued to carry Rassie’s message in future matches for Toulouse. I just want to go out there and inspire people. I want to put a smile on their faces.”
More recently, the back-three specialist has started at flyhalf for Toulouse. Some described the selection as a shock and a gamble. For Kolbe, it was a case of a journey coming full circle.
He excelled at No 10 as an age-group star. Later, coaches convinced him that his size would count against him in professional rugby when he attempted to stop large opposition forwards who ventured down the first-receiver channel.
“There are still people who say that I’m not big enough today,” he says. “It’s something I’ve learned to embrace. That accusation is here to stay, but so am I. I’m never going to stop trying to prove them wrong or trying to show kids that they don’t have to buy that line.
“While I love playing wing, I’m enjoying a bit of time at flyhalf,” he adds. “It’s an exciting challenge in terms of the responsibility you have in marshalling the forwards and the backs. It can be tough communicating the calls in French, but fortunately I have a lot of good people around me who make my job easier.”
Kolbe would relish the chance to play for the Springbok Sevens team and to add another medal to his tally – he won bronze with the Blitzboks in 2016 – when the Olympic Games in Tokyo is eventually staged. He’s equally determined to play an influential role for the Boks when they face the Lions and then build towards the 2023 World Cup.
“That Lions series is something that’s similar to the World Cup in terms of hype and intensity, and every player wants to be a part of it.
“I’ve signed on with Toulouse until 2023, so I will be here in France through to the next World Cup. I’ve loved my time in the city and at the club. I don’t regret my decision to move here [from the Stormers] in 2017.”
A fighter from the outset, Kolbe knows no other way. DM168
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