South Africa’s double World Cup winner on childhood, global glory and the gangland violence in Cape Town he is trying to tackle
“As I’m sitting here, something is definitely happening out there which is the same as the mental image I have from growing up,” Cheslin Kolbe says of the danger he senses on a quiet morning in Cape Town. When he was a boy Kolbe saw people being shot and stabbed on the Cape Flats and he describes the terrible murder of a childhood friend, whose tongue was also cut out, just before the Springbok wing won the first of his two World Cup winner’s medals in 2019.
Kolbe is now one of the best and richest players in world rugby. On a break back home, before he returns to Japan to resume playing for Tokyo Sungoliath, the 30-year-old is in the mood to reflect on his extraordinary journey from poverty and gangland violence, and to explain how rugby has the capacity to offer hope in a brutalised country.
But Kolbe admits that the haunting memories cannot be easily shaken: “That’s the sad part. An image gets stuck in your head but it can help you to humble yourself. It can take you back to where you’ve come from, what it’s taken to overcome challenges in your life. I know I’m now in a much more fortunate position than so many in my community or across South Africa.”
Kolbe stresses that he also has many beautiful memories – including the rapturous reception the Springboks received last year when they returned home from France to show joyous black and white South Africans the World Cup trophy they had just retained.
“2019 was massive but it doesn’t come anywhere close to last year,” he says. “We saw unbelievable scenes where all the smiles on people’s faces, from young to old, showed how rugby brings so much joy in South Africa. For us as players, having that impact and those memories will last for ever. It only happens every four years so we have that responsibility to use our platform so there is hope and inspiration each and every day.”
Kolbe’s desire to help others in often hopeless places is driven by his past where violence, drugs and gang wars dominated. “As funny or as bad as it sounds, whenever you wanted to see action back in the Cape Flats you would go to Scottsville, where my grandma lived. Something would always happen and you’d get entertained from people having fights, getting drunk, and as kids you want to experience something different in life.”
Describing the area as “a proper ghetto”, everything changed for Kolbe “one Friday after school when I went there with friends who became gang members. I still have good relationships with them because they’re my friends I grew up with.” But after they got caught up in an altercation, “this guy pulled out a gun and started shooting. I ran in the complete other direction to my grandma’s house. I couldn’t talk, I was in tears, I was shivering.”
Kolbe shakes his head at “the big gangsterism, the selling of drugs, people getting stabbed and killed. That was normality. Another time I went to visit my grandma and I got stopped 100m from her house by two guys. They didn’t say anything. They just touched the chain I had on and took out a knife and held it against my ribs. The moment I gave it to him, I started running to my grandma. I was 12 and you can’t compete against guys from prison.”
His remarkable speed and sporting talent rescued Kolbe and he was eventually offered a rugby scholarship. “Sport was my escape,” he says. “I came from Kraaifontein but just playing touch rugby barefoot in the streets gave me hope. But if it wasn’t for my parents sacrificing so much, or for sport, I wouldn’t have got out.”
Most of Kolbe’s friends did not escape. “Wayne was one of my closest friends and, growing up, we did everything together every day. He was probably the quietest person you can get, one of the most talented athletes I’ve seen in cricket, athletics and rugby. But he did not have the same family stability as me. He would be approached by gangsters and they give you a T-shirt, a pair of shoes, some money to provide for your family. They make you feel good about yourself but you’re not aware there’s something in return you have to do for them. It started off with small things, dropping off drugs, selling drugs but you get so deep you owe them money and you rob people to pay them back.
“It was so sad for us to see him go from selling drugs to using them to becoming one of the big dogs in gang wars, to him being threatened. I’ve always reached out to his family whenever I was back in South Africa to see how he’s doing because he was in and out of prison.”
In 2019, with Kolbe on the verge of winning the World Cup for South Africa, he was given the shattering news about Wayne. “He got murdered in front of so many others in an open field, tortured by cutting off all his fingers, toes, ears, tongue, everything. I was still in France when I received the news that he was killed by some gang members. It was so sad because we had been so close as kids.”
Kolbe looks up on the Zoom screen and his face is etched in pain. But he is quick to point out that “there are so many others in similar positions and they need guidance and motivation. So whenever I’m back home, I try to spend as much time giving back and hopefully with the foundation my wife and I are setting up we can do much more.”
His stature on the Cape Flats, and all of South Africa, is now huge. But for many years Kolbe was dismissed as being too small. He is 5ft 7in and, despite his electric speed and talent, the hulking physicality of modern rugby meant that few coaches believed he could play internationally. He was told he needed to become a scrum-half to make any progress.
But moving to France in 2017 proved Kolbe’s try-scoring brilliance and, a year later, South Africa’s inspirational new coach, Rassie Erasmus, picked the little wing in his starting XV. Kolbe has since played 31 Tests, scoring 14 tries and won successive World Cups. It’s an admirable record and he underlines how he owes so much to France.
“I was welcomed with open arms in France and accepted for my stature and in the position I want to play. I landed on a Tuesday and played my first Top 14 game that Saturday, not knowing any of the language or gameplan. The Toulouse coach, Ugo Mola, had a lot of belief in me and that developed me into the player I am today. The Top 14 is such a physical competition and playing against the [Pacific] Island boys, and the big French boys, every weekend is a battle. I became more physical and stronger in defence.”
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Kolbe also grew away from rugby. “Taking in as much as you can off the field was beautiful. I wanted to be open-minded and learning the culture and language was one of the good decisions [he and his wife Layla] made because we got more respect from the French public. It wasn’t easy because I was only 23. But we’d just had a little daughter so it was about wanting the best for my family.”
Have his French friends forgiven him for charging down a Thomas Ramos conversion which ultimately made the difference in a World Cup quarter-final last October when South Africa beat the hosts 29-28 in Paris? “I’m not sure if I’m the most popular man in France,” Kolbe says with a smile, “but I still have a lot of good relationships with my old French teammates and coaches.”
Kolbe also scored a try but his speed and timing in blocking Ramos’s kick was even more memorable. “A lot of talk has been about whether it was legal but we do all the analysis and hard work and I played four seasons with Thomas in Toulouse. So I knew his kicking routine, because I did a lot of kicking practise with him. It was all about split seconds, when to pull the trigger and go. I firmly believe I’ve done everything by the book.”
South Africa won the World Cup by the narrowest of margins because they were victorious in their three knockout games by a single point each time. “We just stay in the fight and never give up. That’s what our team is about.”
But, in the last 10 minutes of the final against New Zealand, Kolbe had been sent to the sin-bin. “I was helpless and felt empty,” he admits before adding a different perspective. “At the same time I firmly believe that receiving that yellow card was God’s calling for me to have a different input for the team – which was to pray for the country and the boys fighting out there. So, as stressful and tough as it was, these things happen for a reason. At the final whistle I looked straight into the crowd and I saw my parents, my wife and the kids in tears. After the relief came the satisfaction that all the sacrifice and hard work had paid off.”
Kolbe now plays club rugby in Japan where, he stresses: “I’m really enjoying myself. Japanese people are so welcoming, polite, respectful. And the club has been amazing to me and my family. Layla and the kids also enjoyed it but we’ve now settled them back in Cape Town so they can go to school here. I will travel back and forth [between Tokyo and Cape Town] which won’t be easy but it’s good for the kids to be home.”
As for the standard of rugby in Japan, Kolbe says, “the league has grown so much. It’s so competitive and if some of the teams played sides from the Top 14 or the Premiership it would be a tough battle.
“The Japanese are so open to learning and we can learn from them as well. I haven’t seen players running the way the Japanese boys run on a rugby field. Man, it’s insane. They love putting in the hard work.”
Kolbe will continue to play Test rugby and, he says, “the plan is to be part of the Springboks for as long as possible, hopefully all the way to 2027 [when South Africa will try to win a third successive World Cup]. But I don’t get ahead of myself. My focus now is in Japan, making sure that I play great rugby over there. Whatever happens after that is a bonus.”
Whenever he is back home Kolbe will return to the Cape Flats, where he witnessed so much violence and desperation, and try to help. Kolbe nods after an intense hour of conversation and, speaking quietly, yet powerfully, he says: “If I can reach out, talk and change one person’s life it’s not just an achievement that lightens my day but it can rub off on so many others. We have to keep trying to help.”