By Nick Said
TOYOTACITY, Japan (Reuters) – Cheslin Kolbe’s jet shoes caught the eye in South Africa’s opening 23-13 Rugby World Cup Pool B loss to New Zealand in Yokohama on Saturday, providing an ‘x-factor’ that bamboozled even the world’s best defensive line.
The diminutive Springbok may not have the power of other wings in the competition, but he possesses pace to burn, a wicked side-step, accuracy under the high ball and bravery on defence that belies his relatively small frame.
The cousin of 2016 Olympic gold medallist and 400-metres world record holder Wayde van Niekerk, speed is in his genes, but what he is showing now is a rugby brain to match that makes him one of the most dangerous backline players in Japan.
The 25-year-old is an example of a South African player who had to leave the country’s shores to take his craft to the next level, signing for French Top 14 side Toulouse from the Stormers in 2017.
His improvement from a raw youngster to an accomplished international in two years has been impressive, with his nine carries totalling 118-metres against New Zealand almost double the number of any other player on the pitch.
With the Boks trailing by four points, he had an opportunity to put his side in front after a clean break, but could not beat All Black flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, much to his irritation.
“He (Mo’unga) showed a good pair of heels, but I think I could have gone a bit quicker to his outside and backed myself,” Kolbe told reporters.
“I’ll just make sure that whenever there’s another opportunity like that I’ll capitalise.
“My first game in a World Cup is a memory I’ll take with me throughout my career. It’s not the result we wanted, but it’s a long competition.”
Kolbe also claimed a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games, winning bronze with the South African Sevens side. He too dreamed of being an athlete, but ultimately turned to rugby.
“I started out in athletics and only fell in love with rugby at a later stage,” he told South Africa’s Sunday Independent.
“I did the 100-metres and funnily enough, despite my height, I also did the short hurdles and participated at the South African Schools Championships.
“I decided to focus on rugby when the hurdles outgrew me, and at the end of the day I made peace with it.”
Van Niekerk has been absent from the track for two years after a serious knee injury sustained in a charity touch rugby game, but before that was among the biggest names in world athletics.
He says he takes great joy in watching Kolbe on the field and takes motivation from his achievements.
“I find such inspiration in what he has done,” Van Niekerk told reporters.
“I actually show-off quite a lot with his name. People come up and tease me about rugby and all I need to say is Cheslin is my cousin and then I have won the battle.”
(Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)