What it is like to mark Cheslin Kolbe, 'the Lionel Messi of rugby' - and how the Lions can stop him

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What it is like to mark Cheslin Kolbe, 'the Lionel Messi of rugby' - and how the Lions can stop him - Shutterstock
What it is like to mark Cheslin Kolbe, 'the Lionel Messi of rugby' - and how the Lions can stop him - Shutterstock

Ronan O’Gara has encountered one or two technical glitches during his summer working as a stay-at-home pundit for Sky Sports, but his view on Cheslin Kolbe reached the studio loud and clear before the British and Irish Lions took on South Africa A last Wednesday.

“This guy is very special,” declared the ex-Ireland fly-half. “He genuinely is the Lionel Messi of rugby. I really feel that. He’s a joy to watch.

“Sometimes you have to sit back, say ‘wow’ and feel that you can accept being beaten by some of the genius he produced on a rugby pitch.”

After a season in which he helped Toulouse to beat O’Gara’s La Rochelle in both the European Champions Cup final and the decider of the Top 14, France’s domestic league, Kolbe promptly stunned the Lions with a seven-second burst of brilliance in the 32nd minute.

That was how long it took for the 27-year-old to gather Elliot Daly’s clearance and wait for colleague Faf de Klerk to circle around him before hitch-kicking away from Chris Harris and releasing an offload that sent Lukhanyo Am to the try-line. South Africa A went 17-3 up.

Kolbe has made a habit of these game-breaking flurries, which provoke gawped reactions from players and spectators alike. Clermont centre Wesley Fofana recalls his own experience from April 2019.

“I have a memory of playing against Toulouse at Toulouse,” explains the veteran of 48 France caps. “It was a crazy game [Toulouse won 47-44] and at one stage, in an important moment in the match, we were defending well.

“Kolbe received a pass and fell over on the field, so we were able to push up to him. In a split-second, he watched our defence. Then he tried something crazy. He beat one defender, two defenders, three defenders and scored between the posts.

“It was bad for our heads because against a good defence, with good players in front of him, he did something special and got five points for his team.”

Watching a clip, you can just about see Fofana (number 12) shaking his head while back-tracking from midfield as Kolbe celebrates. He felt the awestruck acceptance described by O’Gara: “After that try, I just said in my head: ‘Wow’.”

Months later, Kolbe darted past Owen Farrell to secure Rugby World Cup glory for South Africa. Many have revelled in the misfortune of England’s captain, but he is far from alone in failing to bottle lightning.

Earlier in the tournament, after being selected on the left wing for Italy’s pool game against the Springboks, Michele Campagnaro fell victim to a very similar step.

“I’m more confident playing centre, so when they put me on the wing I thought: ‘Ooph, this is going to be challenging’,” he says. “Then their team comes out, and Kolbe was on the wing opposite me. I was like: ‘Ooph, OK… even more challenging!’

“I’d watched the videos and I knew he was world-class at stepping back inside, but he also has the goose-step to take you on the outside. I tried not to give him the outside and make sure my 13 was covering me on the inside. Out there, though, you just don’t see it coming.

“When he scored his first try, it was from a long pass. I tried to come up and tackle him into touch but he stepped at the last second, caught me off balance and scored. He’s the best at what he does and he’s very difficult to stop. He’s done that to everyone.”

South Africa were still smarting from their loss to New Zealand and bullied Italy with a ferocious statement performance, winning 49-3. Kolbe added a second try later on, collecting Handré Pollard’s cross-kick after Campagnaro had been dragged in-field to help his team’s ailing defence.

A common theme is that pre-match video analysis only really serves as a reminder of how many ways in which Kolbe can beat you. In making the tackle that effectively won Great Britain an Olympic medal five years ago, Marcus Watson dug deep. His side was leading South Africa 7-5 with less than 90 seconds remaining in the sevens semi-final and Kolbe received the ball around 10 metres out.

“I’d done a lot of reviews on steppers I’d come up against on the sevens circuit before. Pretty much always, they will have certain traits. Sometimes they step off one side and goose off the other. Sometimes one side is stronger than the other.

“I’d watched Cheslin Kolbe step plenty of times and I still had no idea what he was going to do. He’s got everything – a left-foot step, a right-foot step, a goose. I remember thinking: ‘You have to make this tackle somehow, whether that is dragging him into touch or what’.

Marcus Watson - Getty Images 
Marcus Watson - Getty Images

“Luckily for me, the touchline was just there so I used that to help me a bit and pushed him towards it. I remember Phil Burgess screaming at me on the inside. I thought: ‘Sweet, I’ve got that safety’.

“After I’d got into a decent position, I thought the only thing he could do was step back… so I flew in and tried to grab something. I ended up sweeping his legs out from underneath him. There was a bit of luck, and a bit of sheer not wanting to let him past.”

Watson, now of Wasps, first witnessed Kolbe while watching brother Anthony face the Baby Boks for England Under-20 at the 2013 Junior World Championship.

Not long after that, Marcus was with England’s sevens set-up. In a warm-up game with South Africa, which was not full-contact but became “pretty tasty”, a diminutive opponent picked up a loose ball close to the breakdown. Rob Vickerman, the England captain, tumbled and did the splits as he grasped only thin air in an attempt to scrag Kolbe.

“Him and Jason Robinson are different,” adds Watson, a connoisseur of footwork who relays finer details of evasion with eloquence and enthusiasm.

“Robinson was ridiculously explosive but Cheslin is more of what I’d call a stamp-stepper – the best I’ve ever seen, hands-down. He jumps up in the air sometimes, which creates a bit of distance and can put people on their heels.

“Say if he is stepping right to left, he’ll land on his left foot ever so slightly and then bang off his right one. I think he did one on Maro [Itoje] in the South Africa A game. He does it so quickly, it’s so hard to read and he gets so far away that, if you are flat-footed at all, he’ll get outside you.”

Juan de Jongh and Nizaam Carr, former Wasps teammates of Watson, have told of Kolbe’s professionalism and power in the gym while at the Stormers. Watson cites the flexibility in his joints as well, and says that Kolbe’s progress is a source of pride for past and present sevens players.

“I think it’s definitely changing,” says Watson, who highlights Rieko Ioane’s path to the All Blacks as another sevens case study. “More coaches are talking about how good sevens is – even the physical side of it. When I was maybe 18 or 19, I think coaches thought it was a game that small lads played to get away from contact. That’s not the case at all.

“I feel like Cheslin has been told so often that he is too small to play 15s. He went to sevens, carved up and then I’m sure people were telling him the same thing when he came back to 15s – that he was too small. Now he’s one of the best wings in the world. He’s set the Top 14 alight, he’s won the European Cup and the World Cup. He’s been unbelievable.”

At number eight against the Lions in the first Test will be Kwagga Smith, making it two sevens graduates in the Springboks’ starting line-up. Kolbe is more likely to be the headline act of Saturday, though. With that in mind, how can the Lions stop him?

Getty Images  - Getty Images 
Getty Images - Getty Images

Kicking well and staying focussed are Fofana’s chief tips, because “if your mind wanders for a second, it is a break for Toulouse or South Africa”. Watson remembers working in threes to quell elite steppers like Kolbe and Fiji star Jerry Tuwai on the sevens circuit. Anthony will be on the opposite wing, but would Marcus have any pointers for his younger sibling ahead of the weekend?

“Cheslin’s very good in the air as well, but I’d back Anthony against most people in the air,” Watson says. “They’re both good attacking players, so that is a contest I’d like to see. My only advice to him would be to use the touchline if he can.

“Cheslin scored two tries against Ulster [in September 2020] and Jacob Stockdale was hung out to dry a couple of times in the same game because the inside defender had bitten straight in [on the passer]. I would say to Anthony not to let the defenders on his inside die.

“Then he has the safety blanket there and he can use the touchline as well. When that bloke has both shoulders to attack, and space on both sides, there are not too many people better.”

Campagnaro echoes the message that it will be a collaborative effort if the Lions are to keep Kolbe quiet.

“With strong line-speed, you take away time and space and hopefully don’t give him too many opportunities to dance around you like he loves to do,” he says.

“He’s amazing. He’s great. But he’s stoppable, too. If you stay connected in the line, you can hold him. He’s world-class at what he does, but with a good defence and a good strategy, you can stop him. He is human!”

That last sentence is uttered with a laugh, Campagnaro adopting a tone that sounds almost hopeful. Kolbe’s side-stepping certainly seems extra-terrestrial at times.

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