There is a phenomenon in tennis whereby a player is so good at a particular skill the opponent does not even bother trying to respond. This is not the same as admitting defeat, but it is to say: “Fine, you are untouchable when you do that, let’s move on to the next point.”
Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale is already established as one of the world’s best wings, but last Saturday when Cheslin Kolbe came at him with ball in hand he reacted very much as tennis players used to when a Goran Ivanisevic serve flew past. He let Kolbe go. Why make a fool of yourself trying to stop it? Next point.
That was when Kolbe scored the second of his two tries for Toulouse as they dispatched Ulster in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup. The Ireland international stuck out an arm and appeared to stroke Kolbe’s midriff with his flailing fingers as the South African stepped past him, but it was with the futility of a condemned man.
Something similar had occurred with Kolbe’s first try, only that time Stockdale did not manage even to stroke him with those fingers. At least he looked as if he was trying, as he raced across to stop the unstoppable. The innocence of a first encounter, two minutes in. By the time of that second one, two minutes before the interval, Stockdale looked as if he had aged.
This is what happens when people play against Kolbe. Ulster are in good company. Many credit rugby’s pre-eminent sidestepper with breathing new life into Toulouse, whom he joined in 2017 and inspired to their first French title for seven years. Then, of course, his try in the World Cup final in Yokohama last year, when Owen Farrell was the hapless returner of serve, sealed South Africa’s third world title.
“To be honest,” he says, as he muses over his unplayable stepping, “I don’t know what I do on the field. It’s just my body taking over. I surprise myself.”
Kolbe confirms the instinct of the sidestep is so strong in him that it has formed part of his daily routine for as long as he can remember. “To take it way back, at home, whenever I had to take a shower or to get something from the fridge, if I ran into another room, I’d make sure I sidestep into it.”
His genes are likely to have played their part, too. His father, Andrew, was a talented player who might have progressed as far as his son but for the apartheid years. Andrew’s sister, Odessa, was a sprinter similarly disadvantaged by the old regime and her son, Kolbe’s cousin, is Wayde van Niekerk, the 400m Olympic champion and world-record holder.
That the current generation of the family is enjoying such success, as the new era releases more and more talent from those previously oppressed, is not only cathartic for the family but also for the community from which they emerged in the north-eastern suburbs of Cape Town.
“I play this game to create a lot of hope, to inspire those people in my community not to fall into the trap of gangsters and drugs. I have a purpose each and every morning I wake up,” Kolbe says. “It’s why I do this.”
Kolbe and his cousin used to spur each other on from a young age, not only on the track but in the school rugby team, where Kolbe at scrum-half would feed Van Niekerk at fly-half and a try would follow as surely as an ace from Ivanisevic’s racket. But at times there was also a primeval urge honing their talents – that of survival.
“In our community, whenever you do play in the street, a gang war or a shooting can break out, so you normally just run for your life.
“That’s where the speed and everything comes from, trying to avoid getting shot or that kind of thing.”
Speed and stepping have been the making of Kolbe, even as he deploys those skills now to bring success to his teams and hope to his people. Jack Nowell, another old mate from Junior World Cup days, and his Exeter teammates know they will face quite the task at Sandy Park on Saturday trying to thwart Toulouse’s quest for a first European title in 10 years.
To succeed they will almost certainly have to stop Kolbe finding space. Once that happens even the best tend to be left waiting for the restart.
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