Pint-sized predators have become a point of difference in the modern age of rugby, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
In the world of rugby, size matters. It always has and it always will. However, smaller, supremely skilful players – many of whom matured from the Sevens circuit – have become increasingly influential in the 15-man game in recent years due to ever-tightening defensive systems.
The Springboks last year reinforced the age-old adage that defence wins championships as they conceded just 67 points on their seven-match march to a third World Cup title in Japan. Their triumphant journey in the Land of the Rising Sun saw the men in Green and Gold concede just four tries – two against the defending champions New Zealand and one each against Canada and Wales.
The evolution of the game has brought time on the ball and space to manoeuvre in down to an all-time low, leaving coaches with a conundrum. They’ve had to find fresh ways to unlock defences, and many have turned to diminutive dynamos to get the job done.
Locally, the latest example of this new entertaining and effective trend played out in Kimberley at the weekend, where Angelo Davids enjoyed an electric debut for the Stormers in their Super Rugby Unlocked encounter against Griquas. The Blitzbok was on fire in the No.11 jersey, causing all sorts of havoc with his hot-stepping. He beat a match-high six defenders, made three clean breaks, 85 metres, scored a try and set-up another in eight riveting runs.
Blitzbok captain Stedman Gans is the leading try-scorer in the competition with five five-pointers in as many matches for the table-topping Bulls, the 23-year-old proving to be ever-elusive in midfield. The Bulls have also caught lightning in a bottle in Kurt-Lee Arendse, another Springbok Sevens star who’s starched would-be tacklers with his prolific pace.
Gio Aplon, who’s proven his potency at the Stormers, Grenoble and Toyota Verblitz, was also primed to make an impact for the Pretoria franchise but the veteran fell victim to a season-ending knee injury in the Round Two clash against the Cheetahs.
Speaking of these two teams, the latter snapped up one of the most electrifying and experienced wizards of South African rugby from the former in Sevens legend Rosko Specman, who continues to thrill by wielding “Specmagic” in the colours of the Cheetahs.
Cheslin Kolbe, at 1.70m and 74kg, has become the face of the movement. The Springbok superstar is the biggest little man in the game today, impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation with his scintillating speed and bewildering footwork.
The ultimate X-factor livewire was phenomenal in his first full season of Test rugby last year, playing a starring role in South Africa’s triumphant Rugby Championship and World Cup campaigns. He starred for Toulouse as well, helping the club clinch a record 20th Top 14 title and scooping the Player of the Year, Best Try of the Season and Best Top 14 Player at the World Cup awards.
Kolbe was also awarded French publication Midi Olympique’s prestigious l’Oscar Monde Player of the Year award, was named Backline Player of the Year at the BrightRock Players Choice Awards and was nominated for the World Player of the Year award, inspiring a new generation of smaller youth to take up the game while motivating others to pursue their dreams in the sport in the process.
The 27-year-old’s performances against the All Blacks were legendary. He was a giant on defence, brilliant with ball-in-hand and sparked the match-levelling try in Wellington to prove once and for all that he possessed all the qualities to punch above his weight at the highest level.
In the Springboks’ World Cup opener in Yokohama, he upped the ante even further, racking up 124 metres in nine runs while making three clean breaks and beating an unheard of 11 defenders. Few, if any, can say they bamboozled the All Blacks in such spectacular fashion. Both of these battles also highlighted Kolbe’s exemplary kick-chasing and awe-inspiring aerial abilities, where he makes up for his lack of size with superior desire and exceptional athleticism.
His Man of the Match performance against the Azzurri in Shizuoka also stands out as a case study on how the smallest man on the pitch can make the biggest impact. The Springboks swept Italy aside in a 49-3 rout, with Kolbe scoring two of his team’s seven tries.
The first is the perfect example of a fleet-footed firecracker’s worth in the modern game, with the winger bedazzling two defenders despite having little to no room to work with. It was an unbelievable piece of individual brilliance, one the typically bigger and bulkier wing of today would not have been able to pull off.
And then, of course, there’s THAT try in the World Cup final, which saw the pocket rocket snap England captain Owen Farrell’s ankles with trademark flair to seal the deal.
The human highlight reel has continued his heroics in the Covid-19 stricken 2020 season for Toulouse, so much so that he would’ve been the favourite to succeed Springbok teammate Pieter-Steph du Toit as World Player of the Year had the prestigious prize been awarded this year (it’s not, due to the global calendar being turned on its head by the pandemic).
Rugby will remain the land of the giants, but now more than ever, there’s also a definite place for nimble ninjas to be a point of difference with their match-winning flair, provided they can man up on defence like Kolbe.