Cape Town - SA Rugby bosses should scrap the 30 Test foreign-based player eligibility ruling and uncapped Cheslin Kolbe should be playing for the Springboks this year.
Kolbe has been the superstar of Toulouse and been every bit as brilliant as he was when playing for the Stormers and Western Province. The French media judged him the best foreign import in the French Top 14 and Toulouse coach Ugo Mola described Kolbe as a player who fills stadiums because of his attacking brilliance.
Kolbe, sensational for the Blitzboks in recent years, was consistently impressive for the Stormers and Western Province. His best position is fullback and he also regularly played wing.
However, Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee (as Springbok coaches) overlooked Kolbe because of a supposed lack of physicality and size. Kolbe’s genius on attack was deemed secondary to his 75kg in weight. Only in South Africa!
Springbok coaches traditionally have been obsessed with size, too often picking lumbering one dimensional outside backs.
Kolbe’s attacking threat is the equal of any of the world’s recognized best outside backs. Kolbe, physically, is very similar to All Blacks fullback Damian McKenzie, who was a star for the All Blacks this season and crushed the spirit of the Springboks in the All Blacks win in Cape Town.
New Zealand’s selectors, as they tend to do, looked at what the player could do when giving him an opportunity. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is well aware of the vulnerabilities in McKenzie’s make-up. Hansen has spoken of his future perhaps being at flyhalf. But never was McKenzie’s attacking threat dismissed because of areas in which the national coach felt he may be suspect.
In South Africa, the tendency is to justify a player’s omission based on the fear of what he won’t be able to do as opposed to including him on the promise of his potential.
The Springboks in 2017 persisted with Andries Coetzee as a fullback in 13 successive Tests. Springbok coach Allister Coetzee defended the selection of Coetzee on the basis that he played low risk and error free rugby. Ironically, Coetzee was a horror show of errors in the Springboks defeat against Wales in Cardiff to complete the 2017 international season.
The Springboks, under Coetzee, have won 11 from 25 Tests. Had Coetzee had the vision to invest in players of Kolbe’s ilk then perhaps that figure would look be decidedly better.
Kolbe isn’t the first attacking genius to be blocked as a Springbok because of fears that physically he wasn’t big enough to play Test rugby. Brent Russell, in the early 2000s was every bit as talented as Australia’s Matt Giteau. The difference was the Australian coaches found reasons to invest in Giteau’s obvious talents and the Springbok selectors found it more compelling to look at what Russell couldn’t do; not what he so brilliantly did so naturally on attack.
Nick Mallett, former Springbok and Italian coach, believes Kolbe should have played scrumhalf to make it? Why?
John Connolly, during his time as Australian coach, tried to turn Giteau in a Test scrumhalf. All he did was dull Giteau’s attacking threat, which was best when he played at flyhalf or inside centre.
Gio Aplon was another of those South African players supposedly not big enough to play fullback or wing for South Africa. Aplon played for the Springboks but was never entrusted to play his natural attacking game in the No 15 jersey.
He would leave South Africa to be one of the most potent attacking forces in the French Top 14. The same mistake can’t be made with Kolbe.
There has to be a change in mindset in South African rugby. A player’s skill set should trump his weight (or lack thereof) every time when doing an assessment.
There has to be an open-minded approach to what constitutes making the Springboks powerful again. It starts with an appreciation for the attacking qualities of, especially outside backs, and it also has to include the selection of the best players, regardless of where they play or how many times they have played for the Springboks.
The player drain to Europe will never be curbed. It is the way of the professional rugby world. The landscape has changed and financially the rand cannot compete with the lure of the Euro or British Pound.
The only losers in the current selection policy are the Springboks and it would be a crime if Kolbe’s Test career is playing for France when he so obviously should be wearing green and gold.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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