‘I ran for my life – I did not want to end up the vic­tim of a gang war’

Spring­bok star Ch­es­lin Kolbe, who faces Ex­eter with Toulouse on Satur­day, seeks to of­fer hope for young­sters in his home­town

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Rugby Union - By Daniel Gal­lan

Ch­es­lin Kolbe has been sidestep­ping trou­ble all his life. His most fa­mous shimmy was in Yoko­hama last year when he turned Eng­land’s cap­tain Owen Far­rell into a Fer­ris wheel en route to a World Cup-clinch­ing try for South Africa, but while the sport­ing stakes were per­ilously high that day, they were nothing com­pared to the af­ter­noon in Cape Town, many years pre­vi­ously, when his jet heels may well have saved his life. Back then, Kolbe would spend most af­ter­noons in a park which lay be­tween his par­ents’ and grand­mother’s houses in Scottsvill­e, a small sub­urb of Kraai­fontein on the north­ern edge of Cape Town.

It was a haven for drug deal­ers and vi­o­lent gang mem­bers, and Kolbe had grown used to wit­ness­ing drug deals and mi­nor scuf­fles. One Fri­day, at around 2pm, he sensed a shift in the at­mos­phere. Two ri­val gangs were squar­ing off in the mid­dle of the park, at­tract­ing at­ten­tion like a black hole. Some­thing had to give. “They just started shoot­ing each other,” Kolbe says, still in­cred­u­lous af­ter all these years. “I ran for my life. I didn’t want to be a vic­tim of a gang war. I just started run­ning.”

Kolbe’s child­hood was filled with such trau­mas. He de­scribes see­ing a man beaten with a spade and another get­ting stabbed, and still re­mem­bers the help­less feel­ing of be­ing sur­rounded by three strangers as a knife was pressed into his stom­ach, scarcely com­pre­hend­ing the real­ity that his life hinged on him un­clasp­ing a bracelet in time be­fore cold steel punc­tured his gut. “That was life in Scottsvill­e,” he ex­plains. “It hap­pened on a daily ba­sis. Ev­ery day some­one was killed or locked up.”

Most dam­ag­ing of all was the drug trade. Many of Kolbe’s close child­hood friends were sucked into the vi­cious and pre­dictable cy­cle of ad­dic­tion – from youthful ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, to be­ing cast out of home and into the wait­ing clutches of deal­ers who make them start sell­ing them­selves. From there it is a short jour­ney to petty crime and, ul­ti­mately, more se­ri­ous mis­de­meanours. “I lost a lot of friends this way,” Kolbe says. “They never ap­pre­ci­ated the lit­tle they had. They took the easy way out. They would try and con­vince me to try it, but I al­ways said, ‘This is not me’. That was not how my par­ents raised me. They never tried al­co­hol or drugs so who am I to want to ex­pe­ri­ence things like that? “I never once had a week­end where I was par­ty­ing. I was in the gym or train­ing since I can remember. Sport was def­i­nitely the way out for me.” Kolbe has come a long way since those dan­ger­ous days in Scottsvill­e – 7,500 miles, in fact, to Toulouse, for whom he turned in a match­win­ning per­for­mance in last week­end’s Cham­pi­ons Cup quar­ter-fi­nal against Ul­ster. Ex­eter await at Sandy Park on Satur­day, and Rob Bax­ter must al­ready be sleep­ing fit­fully as he wres­tles with the co­nun­drum of how to stop him.

Kolbe has worked tire­lessly to de­velop his ta­lent, but his genes have helped. His fa­ther An­drew was a tal­ented in­side cen­tre dur­ing apartheid. Un­able to break into the elite end of the sport in South Africa due to the colour of his skin, he had lit­tle choice but to pour his en­ergy into shin­ing for his lo­cal club Hands and Heart, which he did bril­liantly.

“I’ve heard so many peo­ple in the West­ern Cape tell me he was ex­cep­tional,” Kolbe says. “He just never got the chance.”

While his friends had their heads turned by other dis­trac­tions, the younger Kolbe would ac­com­pany

‘I wanted to prove peo­ple wrong. Coaches, play­ers and fans al­ways told me that I’m too small’

his fa­ther to train­ing ses­sions and week­end matches, busy­ing him­self with a ball on the touch­line. It is not sim­ply his fa­ther, ei­ther. Kolbe’s cousin is the men’s 400me­tres world-record holder Wayde van Niek­erk and the pair have been rac­ing since their legs could carry them. “I be­lieve I was faster than him when I was younger,” says Kolbe, who earned South African colours as a hur­dler at un­der-12 and un­der-13 level.

He then grins and al­most re­luc­tantly adds: “To be hon­est, I’m not sure I ac­tu­ally ever beat him.”

In con­trast to ath­let­ics, rugby in South Africa is still largely viewed as a bas­tion of white priv­i­lege. Though this mind­set is slowly ebbing away

thanks to the chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of the na­tional teams, it still holds true that a player’s chances of reach­ing the top are bol­stered if he at­tends an elite school. Kolbe earned a schol­ar­ship to Brack­en­fell High School, a mixed state school with an­nual fees of around £1,100, a pit­tance com­pared to the bet­ter re­sourced tra­di­tional sport­ing pow­er­houses. But Kolbe took heart from his school’s Latin motto of al­tiora

spero – hop­ing for higher things – and re­fused to ac­cept the lim­i­ta­tions oth­ers placed upon him, not least those who thought he was too small – at 5ft 7in – to thrive in South Africa’s no­to­ri­ously phys­i­cal game.

“I’ve al­ways worked to prove peo­ple wrong,” Kolbe ex­plains.

“Play­ers, team-mates, coaches and fans have al­ways told me I’m too small. That just made me work harder in the gym. I was in there ev­ery day af­ter school.”

His hard work paid off and in 2009 he earned a call-up to the West­ern Prov­ince Un­der-16 side as a sec­ond-choice fly-half for the an­nual Grant Khomo in­ter­provin­cial week. He was se­lected to start in the fi­nal against the more fan­cied Free State out­fit, scor­ing 17 points, in­clud­ing a dropped goal and a try.

This was the same year the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions were last in South Africa. Though he never watched a game live, Kolbe was trans­fixed with the mythol­ogy sur­round­ing the tourists and the pageantry of their loyal sup­port­ers.

Adrian Ja­cobs started the first two Tests for South Africa at out­side cen­tre. Like Kolbe, Ja­cobs had grown up on the un­for­giv­ing streets of Kraai­fontein. “He was one of us and the first in our com­mu­nity to get that ex­po­sure,” Kolbe says of a man who still rep­re­sents Hands and Heart. “We’ve seen so much ta­lent [wasted]. He cre­ated a lot of pos­i­tiv­ity.”

Then there was Jaque Fourie’s try in the sec­ond Test. With South Africa four points adrift with seven min­utes to go, the hulk­ing back bull­dozed over Ro­nan O’Gara and brushed off the tackle of Mike Phillips to dot down in the cor­ner. Kolbe says that score, recog­nised as the best try of 2009, “topped ev­ery­thing” across a sea­son that changed his out­look on the game. This was not merely a pas­time in­her­ited from his fa­ther. This was now a tan­gi­ble ca­reer path. He made his se­nior West­ern Prov­ince de­but in 2012 and then for the Storm­ers fran­chise a year later. His speed and agility made him a nat­u­ral fit with the Sev­ens out­fit, but once again his size proved to be a bar­rier for higher hon­ours. In 2017, he signed for Toulouse.

When Rassie Eras­mus took over from Al­lis­ter Coet­zee as Spring­bok coach in early 2018, he did away with a se­lec­tion pol­icy of pick­ing over­seas-based play­ers only if they had more than 30 caps. Play­ers such as Wil­lie le Roux (with Wasps) and Faf de Klerk (Sale) in­jected in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence by virtue of their time abroad. Af­ter run­ning rings around would-be de­fend­ers in the Top 14, Kolbe was handed his na­tional de­but in Bris­bane in Septem­ber that year.

Un­der the lead­er­ship of Eras­mus and cap­tain Siya Kolisi, the Spring­boks es­poused an ethos that sought to con­tex­tu­alise rugby. “In South Africa, pres­sure is not hav­ing a job,” Eras­mus said af­ter the vic­tory in Yoko­hama. “Pres­sure is one of your close rel­a­tives be­ing mur­dered.”

Kolbe has long un­der­stood this. In 2014, he set up the Be the Dif­fer­ence Foun­da­tion, a char­ity that helps im­pov­er­ished neigh­bour­hoods in the West­ern Cape. At the start of the coro­n­avirus lock­down, he played an ac­tive role feed­ing 400 peo­ple a week. Now, they are serv­ing as many as 1,700 hot meals to those in need.

“I am so thank­ful with how blessed I am,” Kolbe says. “Get­ting here wasn’t easy, but I’ve never wanted any­one to feel sorry for me. I see kids as young as 12 sell­ing drugs and com­mit­ting crimes in Kraai­fontein. It’s 10 times worse than it was. That is why I give back. I tell those kids, ‘I was the same as you’. Ev­ery time I step on the field, I’m rep­re­sent­ing them.”

His­tory-maker: Ch­es­lin Kolbe se­cured leg­endary sta­tus with his try for the Spring­boks against Eng­land in last year’s World Cup fi­nal

Euro­pean cam­paign: Ch­es­lin Kolbe put in a match-win­ning per­for­mance for Toulouse against Ul­ster last week­end

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