Sport

WORLD BEATER

Bok star Cheslin Kolbe continues to embrace responsibility — on and off the field

Bok star Cheslin Kolbe continues to embrace responsibility — on and off the field
Cheslin Kolbe after the 2023 Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Cheslin Kolbe was deemed too small for the Boks when he left for France in 2017. But he showed the world his value and is now a true global superstar.

Cheslin Kolbe is one of the most decorated South African rugby players of all time, having won the Champions Cup, the Challenge Cup, the Rugby Championship, a series against the British & Irish Lions and the World Cup (twice).

Life is full of sliding-door moments, and it’s interesting to note that Kolbe won all of those titles after taking the bold decision to leave the Stormers and head to France in 2017. It was on the back of a stellar season for Toulouse that he earned a call-up to the Springboks in 2018.

Though he has earned every accolade that has come his way, he still marvels at how much his career – and his life – has changed over the past eight years. “I have to pinch myself sometimes,” he says with a laugh. “It’s enough to be a Springbok, let alone a player who has won the World Cup twice.

“In my mind, I’m still that kid who dreamed about playing rugby but never quite believed it would happen. Nowadays, when I meet young fans on the street, I stop to chat and encourage them, because dreams do come true.”

Never say die

It’s been nearly six months since Kolbe and the Boks made history in France, becoming the first team to win four World Cup titles and the first South African side to go back-to-back.

More recently, fans have had the opportunity to relive that dramatic campaign by watching the Chasing the Sun 2 docuseries.

As you’d expect, Kolbe features prominently – and there’s a special moment in the lead-up to the quarterfinal against France where captain Siya Kolisi highlights the winger’s never-say-die attitude. Like Kolisi, Kolbe had a tough upbringing, yet managed to beat the odds to become one of the best players on the planet.

Though Kolbe made several key interventions at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the charge-down of Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion was the most significant, and will be remembered as yet another sliding-door moment.

The impeccably timed play stopped France from adding two points to their tally, and the Boks went on to win the game 29-28. In another universe, Kolbe might have started his run a split second later – or decided not to run at all – and Ramos might have completed the kick that would have effectively knocked South Africa out of the tournament.

Uniting South Africa

“So much has changed since 2019,” says Kolbe. “No one expected us to win the World Cup in Japan, and we were fighting to win some respect back for the Springbok jersey [after the side dropped down to seventh in the World Rugby rankings in 2018]. We believed when no one else did.

“There was a lot more expectation and pressure to deliver in 2023, and our motivation was very different. We did it for the country. What also changed was the reaction to the 2023 victory. The celebration was on another level, and you couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed by fans.

“We play to unite our country – and it’s a responsibility that extends beyond World Cup tournaments, or even our time in the Bok camp,” he adds.

“We must use our platforms to keep this going. We started something, and now we can’t let it fade.”

Embracing it all

Back in 2020, Kolisi started to use his on-field success to boost several charities and initiatives. At the time, parts of the South African rugby community were concerned that the Springbok captain might be distracted by these responsibilities, and that his form would dip.

Fast-forward to the present, where Kolbe, one of the most important players in the Bok squad, is also spinning a number of plates. Already people are concerned that one or more will come crashing down.

Kolbe suggests that it’s not a matter of choosing one responsibility or the other.

The winger is currently setting up the Cheslin Kolbe Foundation, which aims to provide a range of services to his local community just outside Cape Town.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cheslin Kolbe, a beacon of light in sport’s dark times

He joined Suntory Sungoliath in Japan late in 2023, and has subsequently announced a partnership with Value Golf. He hopes the ambassadorship deal with the Japanese company will boost his social outreach initiatives.

“You have to embrace it all,” he says of his various responsibilities as a player, businessman and social crusader. He’s also a proud father of three.

“You want to do as well as possible on the field, but at the same time, you’re thinking about what comes next.

“As a pro athlete, you’re in this space for maybe five to 10 years, but then you rub shoulders with business people who have been working in their field for twice as long, if not longer. You’ve got to go into that with the will to learn and adapt.

“I try to remember the fight and the effort it took to become a rugby player, and I commit to making the same effort off the field. I’m the same person I was before all of this came about.”

Kolbe made a successful return from injury last month. His club is on track to qualify for the Japan Rugby League One playoffs.

If all goes to plan, he will be unleashed in the one-off Test against Wales on 22 June, and in the two-Test series against Ireland in July.

If he stays fit, he may well join the Boks when they pursue an unprecedented hat-trick of World Cup titles at the 2027 tournament in Australia. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Awesome skill backed by never-give-up grit.

  • jason du toit says:

    i’m not sure jon understands what a liding door moment is.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    What an example for everyone he is. Brilliant, as the whole Bok team is, examples of what this country could have been/will hopefully be through teamwork across the races, not the example the apartheid and neo-apartheid governments have made it into. But you know what the best memory of Cheslin is from the RWC? Him sitting there with his shirt over his head in embarrassment (presumably) at his deliberate knock-on near the end of the game. It showed his passion and fear that his one slight mistake could have cost his team the cup – speaks chapters about his attitude to the game and his country.

    [BTW Jon please don’t say things like “More recently, fans have had the opportunity to relive that dramatic campaign by watching the Chasing the Sun 2 docuseries.” Some of us aren’t able to see it – or the first one about the 2017 Cup – because we either can’t or won’t pay DSTV about a grand a month to watch their crap programmes just so we can watch sport. And it sticks in the craw that those greedy sods won’t release either of them on some type of pay-to-view basis so we can, either.]

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