South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus has achieved a lot in just two years, writes Paul Eddison.
He has taken the Springboks from the nadir of a first-ever defeat against Italy to World Cup contenders.
That remains the case even after an opening defeat to New Zealand in which the defending champions reasserted their position as the favourites to retain their crown.
Yet more than re-establishing South Africa as a rugby force and winning the Rugby Championship along the way this year, the most important thing Erasmus has done is give Cheslin Kolbe a chance.
Even in defeat, the diminutive winger was the star of the show in the Pool B classic in Yokohama, defying the laws of physics in the way he wriggled out of tackles and evaded All Black defenders.
In the land of giants – and nowhere is a greater emphasis placed on size than South Africa – Kolbe is a reminder that small can be beautiful too.
It was Kolbe’s remarkable run that led to South Africa’s first try, slipping through a gap before turning Richie Mo’unga one way then the other. That Mo’unga was able to bring him down just short of the line is testament of the All Black fly-half’s own speed, rather than any criticism of Kolbe’s finishing.
A few phases later, South Africa were in for their first try, while Kolbe wowed the crowd once again ten minutes from time with another electric dart.
That run ended with him down and requiring medical treatment. Thankfully for South Africa, the World Cup and every fan watching, it was just cramp and a little shock on the ankle rather than anything more serious.
Because if there is one thing we have learned over the last two seasons in Europe, and before that on the Sevens circuit, it is that you can never have too much Kolbe.
There was a touching moment at the end of the game as Ardie Savea – the embodiment of the physique you would build in a lab to create the ideal rugby player – comforted the smallest man on the field.
Savea looks unstoppable at times when he carries the ball, but he was in no doubt as to who the most dangerous player on show was.
He said: “He’s amazing. He’s a pocket rocket. He’s so hard to tackle and he’s probably the smallest man on the field but still the hardest to tackle.
“That’s a testament to himself and the qualities he’s possesses. He was tough to handle out there.”
Yet Kolbe’s path to Japan has not been straightforward. Considered too small – at 1m70 and 80kg – to survive at international level, former Springbok coach Nick Mallett even suggested Kolbe switch to scrum-half back in 2016.
Ironically, he ended up filling in for a few minutes at No.9 during the Rugby Championship, but after being overlooked by former Springbok bosses Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, Kolbe has been given a chance by Erasmus and taken it, proving that he can succeed on the wing at Test level.
When he left South Africa two years ago to join up with French side Toulouse, it seemed any hope of an international future had disappeared.
But such have been his performances in the northern hemisphere that even the giant Springboks had to give a chance to the pocket rocket.
Even for someone as modest as Kolbe, that clearly meant a lot.
Kolbe reflected: “Coming out and playing my first game at a World Cup against the All Blacks, it’s a memory I’ll take with me throughout my career. It’s not the result that I wanted but it’s still early days and a long competition so we’re ready for the next one.”
South Africa have taken an early blow with defeat to New Zealand, and will have to do something that has never before been achieved – no team has won the World Cup after losing a group game.
In Kolbe they have a man who defies expectations every day. Don’t be surprised to see him back in Yokohama for the final.
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