Gio Aplon: Cheslin Kolbe proved his own naysayers wrong

Cheslin Kolbe (Getty Images)
Cheslin Kolbe (Getty Images)
  • Cheslin Kolbe beat three bigger defenders to score one of the winning tries for the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup final against England.
  • Gio Aplon said he was glad to see Kolbe do so well, especially at the global stage.
  • Both players played in France, where their skills were hailed, and used French rugby to silence doubters.

From the half-a-second he stepped into Owen Farrell's inside, past two more hapless English defenders, and cantered over the line to seal the Rugby World Cup, Springbok Cheslin Kolbe became the hero for "Small Size Matter".

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The 2019 tournament saw a transformative shift in rugby’s, in particular South Africa’s, long-held bias towards players of bigger disposition. Kolbe was at its forefront, with hosts Japan following suit and putting on plucky performances with a squad largely made of Davids, not Goliaths.

But before the Kolbe moment, Stormers fans remember how devastating new Bulls signing Gio Aplon was at fullback and wing in his prime.

Although he played just 17 times for South Africa, Aplon was largely regarded as a luxury player, not a must-have. He fielded more doubts about his defensive abilities than high balls but answered back with some of the most courageous plays seen on a rugby field. He (along with Breyton Paulse before him) chipped away at the stereotypes.

Each time he cleaved past larger opponents, he luminated the path for Kolbe to follow. Aplon, however, believes Kolbe went a step further with his success at last year’s global showpiece, silencing his own doubters and taking the baton to the next level.

"It put everything into perspective," Aplon told Sport24.

"After all the years of me and various other players fighting to prove that there’s a place for everyone in the game, seeing him play that well at the global stage - the World Cup, which is the pinnacle for any rugby player - I  was just happy and grateful and glad to see him do so well.

"We can say that I might have had an impact on him but in the same breath we must commend Cheslin for taking that baton even further. And the reason why there’s hype about him is because he is playing well.

"It helped that a lot of players paved the way for him but he proved his own naysayers wrong."
Other than their obvious physical similarities and styles of play, Aplon and Kolbe both doubled their value by playing in France, where their talents were appreciated and lauded.

For Aplon, 37, the 2014 move to Grenoble perhaps came too late in his career but for Kolbe, 26, the timing could never have been better when he left for Toulouse in 2017. Both players set the French scene alight, with the latter winning the 2019 Top 14 player-of-the-year award to add to his World Cup medal.

"In France I could enjoy my rugby in terms of my identity," Aplon said about his time in France before he moved to Japan.

"The club that I went to, Grenoble, they specifically wanted me, so I had nothing to prove to them in terms of trying to be a kicking fullback or be someone who runs over people.

"They knew exactly who they were getting and that was good because I could just go out and express myself. That’s where the freedom came from. They knew my identity and I knew my identity and all I had to do was play it out on the field.

"It was a bit of a culture shock and a language shock at first and I had to do a lot of adapting during the first six months, which were really tough for me.

"I had been in one system at Western Province for so long and to totally change systems meant dealing with on-field and off-field challenges.

"Sometimes it went well, like you saw in the highlights, but sometimes it went bad. But it was never about what you should be but what you are."

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