Cheslin Kolbe becomes world's most expensive rugby player after Toulon buy out his Toulouse contract

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Kolbe has been a star for Toulouse since joining in 2017 - AFP
Kolbe has been a star for Toulouse since joining in 2017 - AFP

Cheslin Kolbe, one of the current superstars of rugby union, has joined Toulon from Toulouse for €1.8m (£1.54m) to become the world’s most expensive signing.

A record transfer fee for the electric winger, whose footwork and sensational attacking play have earned him plaudits all over the world in recent years, will see the Rugby World Cup winner head to the south of France in December, once his commitments with South Africa have finished after an end-of-season break.

Rumours that Kolbe was set to leave Toulouse intensified at the start of the week, with the 27-year-old currently away on international duty with the Springboks preparing to play in the Rugby Championship.

According to Midi Olympique in France, an alleged disagreement over Kolbe's €900,000 (£770,000) per year salary at Toulouse, between the player and his agency Roc Nation Sports with the club, was the reason behind his departure after four years. Kolbe's new salary with Toulon is set to reportedly be €1m per year - still some way below Dan Carter's €1.5m salary during his time at Racing - with Kolbe joining Toulon on a three-year contract.

Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre, who replaced the previous owner Mourad Boudjellal two years ago, confirmed on Thursday that talks between the two clubs had been successful, with Toulon officially announcing Kolbe's signing on Friday morning.

Kolbe was under contract with Toulouse until the end of the 2022-23 season, with the €1.8m (£1.54m) fee paid by Toulon covering the final two years of Kolbe's contract worth €900,000 (£770,000) per year.

That €1.8m figure eclipses the reported fee paid by Montpellier to sign Johan Goosen from Racing 92 for €1.5m (£1.3m), and also the reported €1m (£858,000) Montpellier paid to bring Louis Picamoles back to France from Northampton Saints in 2017. Those contract buyouts are still anomalies rather than a sign of a growing trend in rugby's transfer market, though the act of prising players out of their contracts is becoming a more regular occurrence in European rugby.

Lemaitre conceded in the week that Toulon had been hurt last season by investing so much in international players who were then absent from the side for large patches of the Top 14 schedule, before conceding: "But this is an exception made for an exceptional player."

Toulon's president Bernard Lemaitre - AFP
Toulon's president Bernard Lemaitre - AFP

It's a high price for a world-leading talent, but Toulon are not the same big-spending juggernaut of the early-2010s who swept up each top international they could get their hands on - Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell to name a few - on their way to winning three Champions Cup crowns in a row.

Recruitment this summer had been more measured - Cornell du Preez from Worcester and Kieran Brookes from Wasps are among the new arrivals - with Kolbe's announcement blowing the rest of the new signings out of the water.

Lemaitre was almost at pains in the press release announcing Kolbe's arrival to stress how the club had been restructured and remodelled since his arrival nearly two years ago, with the construction of a new 'RCT Campus' and a five-year kit deal with Nike helping to get the house in order "after a major rescue".

What Toulon were yet to address, Lemaitre added, was "the need to be competitive in big matches". Kolbe's arrival should certainly help in that regard.

Kolbe had nothing left to win with Toulouse, who are reigning Top 14 and Champions Cup winners, having also won another French league title in 2018-19 (the 2019-20 season was cancelled). It was Kolbe's outrageous drop goal from halfway which lit up the recent Top 14 final win over La Rochelle.

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When you factor in that Kolbe has also won the World Cup and Rugby Championship with South Africa in the past two years, along with a Test series against the British and Irish Lions, it has been some purple patch.

He has been part of Toulouse's great rebirth in recent times, thriving in an attack-minded, youthful side propelled by exciting young French players now forming the spine of the national side in Julien Marchand, Francois Cros, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Toulouse have been a joy to watch with Kolbe in the side, but will continue to be so without him too.

"Thank you for your impact on my career and your role in shaping me into the player and person I am today," Kolbe said in a goodbye letter to the club.

"Thank you for believing in me and giving me the freedom and joy to play at my best. I have made so many special and incredible memories, friends and ultimately friends become family. The Stade Toulousain brotherhood I will forever cherish."

Moving to Toulouse, it should be stressed, has utterly transformed Kolbe's career. There were times during his previous spell with Western Province and the Stormers where the plan was to switch him to scrum-half, due to his 5ft 7 ½in stature.

He told Telegraph Sport in 2019: "At that stage in my career I had not achieved as much as I wanted. I needed a new challenge at that point in my life. A fresh start."

Now he is one of the best players in the world. Even in his wildest dreams he could not have imagined such success with Toulouse and he departs as one of the club's great overseas signings, having produced the kind of form which, coinciding with the relaxation of South Africa's overseas 30-cap rule, led to him making his Test debut in 2018. He has still only won just 16 Test caps, scoring eight tries.

Toulon's squad is not as strong or ready for success as Toulouse's, finishing outside of the Top 14 play-off places last season, although a backline featuring Baptiste Serin, Lionel Carbonel, Gabin Villière and Kolbe should entertain.

He is a rare blockbuster signing for a team who used to bring them in by the truckload. Whether Kolbe's arrival sparks a return to the team's glory days of a few years back remains to be seen. But his time with Toulouse has been a triumph, and his top billing as rugby's most expensive signing, given his output over the past two years, is richly deserved.

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