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Celebrating the Springboks’ Biggest Little Men

Celebrating the Springboks’ Biggest Little Men

25 September 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

Celebrating the Springboks’ Biggest Little Men

Following Cheslin Kolbe’s massive performance in the Rugby World Cup Pool B clash against the All Blacks in Yokohama on Saturday, Quintin van Jaarsveld highlights some of the biggest little men in Springbok history.

South Africa has always been the land of the giants when it comes to rugby. The Springboks are universally revered/feared for their monstrous size and unbridled physicality. More than any other nation in world rugby, South Africa rely on their gigantic forwards – bulldozers with ball-in-hand, immovable on defence and seemingly carved out of granite – to power them to victory.

When it comes to Springbok rugby, size matters. It always has and it always will. It’s the one common denominator shared by all who have coached the team through the generations. Jake White, who guided the Springboks to their second World Cup crown in the 2007 showpiece in France, summed up the size-centric mentality best when he said a good big player will always enjoy preference over a good small player.

Every so often, though, a smaller, Raptor-like scavenger sneaks into the leviathan landscape and lights it up with scintillating speed, bewildering footwork and sheer will. What they lack in size, they make up for in skill, creativity and heart, proving that the age-old cliché it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog rings true even in the Test arena.

With that in mind, we shine the spotlight on six players who forced their way into the Springbok set-up and punched above their weight in the Green and Gold (in chronological order).

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Paulse blazed the trail for future X-factor firecrackers to follow. The Western Province star proved it’s possible for a smaller player to not only cut it but excel at the highest level. He did it in style, too, scoring a hat-trick on debut as the Springboks thrashed Italy 74-3 in Port Elizabeth on June 12, 1999.

The elusive winger went on to become one of the most decorated Springboks of all-time, winning the South African Player of the Year award in 2000, playing in two World Cups (1999 and 2003), helping South Africa secure their second Tri-Nations title in 2004 and scoring 26 tries, putting him fourth on the all-time list.

A fleet-footed fan favourite with the most legendary signature try celebration in Springbok history, Paulse made his 64th and final Test appearance in a losing effort (33-6 loss) against the All Blacks in Christchurch on July 14, 2007.

Fondly known as “the Pocket Rocket”, Russell played in 23 Tests from 2002 to 2006. He was the original Springbok utility back, whose versatility made him an ideal super-sub, which limited him to just seven starts. It did, however, also see him make history as the first-ever Springbok to play in every position in the backline.

He made four appearances at flyhalf, seven at fullback, nine on the wing and two at centre before rounding off the full set when he came on as replacement scrumhalf in the 38-36 win over Wales in Cardiff on November 6, 2004. The only player who has since achieved this remarkable feat is Ruan Pienaar. Dynamic and quick as a hiccup, Russell scored some electrifying tries (eight in total).

Januarie’s name will live on forever thanks to his legendary chip-and-chase try that earned the Springboks their first-ever win at the House of Pain on July 12, 2008. Trailing 28-23 and down to 14 men (with Victor Matfield having been yellow carded for a high tackle) with just six minutes remaining, Ricky scored one of the all-time great Springbok tries, with Frans Steyn slotting the pressure conversion.

South Africa held on for a historic 30-28 win and snapped the All Blacks’ world record 30-match unbeaten streak on home soil in the process.

Albeit the biggest, the magical try was far from the only highlight of the nuggety No.9’s international career. Januarie, who scored on debut in the 134-3 hammering of Uruguay in East London on June 11, 2005, was a member of the 2007 World Cup-winning and 2009 British and Irish Lions Series-winning squads. The last of his 47 Tests came in the 29-22 loss to the All Blacks in Johannesburg on August 21, 2010.

Equally electric on the wing and at fullback, Aplon made 17 appearances in the Green and Gold between 2010 and 2012. A move from Western Province to Grenoble in 2014 revitalised his career.

A sensational stepper and game-breaker of note, Aplon matured into a consistent performer and well-rounded player during his time at the Top 14 club.

He continued his good form following a move to Japanese club Toyota Verblitz in 2017 and was rewarded with a shock Springbok recall at the age of 36 for the 2018 end-of-year tour, although he didn’t add to his Test tally.

His best performance in a Springbok jersey came in his second Test and the familiar comforts of Cape Town, where he scored a brace in the 42-17 win over France on June 12, 2010, to walk away with the Man of the Match award.

The effervescent scrumhalf is the most prolific playmaker on this list. When unshackled and allowed to play his natural attacking game, the former Lions ace with the famous blonde locks is one of the most mercurial match-winners in the world.

Already a star during his time in Johannesburg, when he won his first 11 Test caps in 2016, it was a move to Sale Sharks at the start of the 2017-18 season that took his career to new heights and earned him a Springbok recall last year.

He had a sensational season for club and country in 2018, making the Springbok No.9 jersey his own and earning a nomination for the World Rugby Player of the Year award.

Not just an attacking wizard, De Klerk is a top-class tactical-kicker as well, which has become his primary responsibility for the Springboks this year, and he’s an excellent defender. He sticks to his opposite number like glue, often catching him ball and all and securing turnovers, and makes a habit of making spot tackles on much larger opponents around the ruck and as sweeper.

The man who inspired this feature, Kolbe has been an absolute revelation and breath of fresh air this year. A unique threat in the bulky Springbok wider channels, he was a one-man army for the most part on Saturday. Which other player has beaten 11 All Blacks defenders in a single game, with just nine runs at that?

The Toulouse star was just as impressive in the Rugby Championship clash against the old foe in Wellington, where he was a giant on defence and sparked the match-levelling try. He’s hardly put a foot wrong in his blossoming 11-Test career and there’s no doubt that he’s cemented his place in the starting line-up since his maiden appearance off the bench in the 23-18 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane last September.

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Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at and senior staff writer at, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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