Cape Town – Cheslin Kolbe’s first steps as a starting fullback were positives ones and, if he stands up to the anticipated barrage of kicks from the Blue Bulls at Newlands on Saturday, he may well achieve what some thought impossible, replacing Gio Aplon before the original Western Province dynamo has even had a chance to hang pictures in his new home at the foot of the French Alps.
In his first start as a senior fullback, Kolbe produced moments of tactical appreciation against the EP Kings last week which allayed fears that he is a cowboy who would fancy his chances going into a gunfight with a knife.
Centre Michael van der Spuy dotted down in the corner as a direct result of Kolbe’s restraint after collecting a chip deep in his own half. He correctly diagnosed the situation and responded with an excellent punt into enemy territory, which was hunted and retrieved by flyer Seabelo Senatla, and eventually spun out to Van der Spuy for the score.
However, the performance should be viewed within the context that Kolbe’s potential shortcomings were not probed by a Kings outfit that marked their return to premier league Currie Cup duty by committing tactical suicide, playing for possession rather than territory.
Allister Coetzee noted that the Bulls fell into the same trap last week. Contrary to their renowned modus operandi, the Bulls were emphatically out-kicked in 41-13 loss against the Lions at Ellis Park. The WP coach expects the Pretorians to revert to type on Saturday as they take to Newlands for their second road game in search of their first win.
“They played with a bit more width last week and found themselves stuck between the kicking and running system, so they might go back to their big kicking game,” he said.
The Kings did not contest high, hanging kicks on 1.7-metre Kolbe. They did not explore the opportunity to catch Kolbe with the ball from such kicks, or the possibility of flooding the ensuing tackle point to force a turnover or win a penalty.
The Bulls will do all of these things on Saturday, but Kolbe’s teammates don’t expect them to reap any dividends.
“I think Cheslin will be great,” said WP scrumhalf Nic Groom. “He’s been playing in the back three against some of the greatest kickers in the world (in Super Rugby).
“We also know it’s tougher to kick at Newlands, the ball doesn’t go as far or as high, but Cheslin has proven himself on one of the biggest stages, so he’ll be ready for that.”
Kolbe credits Aplon for the success of his transition to the seniors over the past two seasons, and there is arguably nobody who would have been better suited to mentoring the Brackenfell burner.
Diminutive Aplon blazed his own trail. Finding a way to prosper in a game dominated by giants, he emerged as perhaps South Africa’s greatest openfield runner in the history of Super Rugby.
The 17-Test Springbok was feared and revered for his ability to convert kick-receptions into tries, and this threat helped to funnel opponents towards Province’s defensive wall.
Aplon recently joined French club Grenoble and, having spent the latter part of a decade at WP consigned to the wing, there were concerns that plans to have Kolbe play fullback would never materialise.
But last week’s trip to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was a pop quiz, and Kolbe aced it.
On Saturday, the 20-year-old will have to pass a tougher exam set by the Bulls.
He will field more kicks. He will be challenged in the air for those kicks; tackled as soon as he lands. There will be less time to make decisions, and less space to kick into.
Coetzee says Kolbe could be the answer at fullback.
“Cheslin is a very competent guy,” he said. “A lot of people will ask about the high ball, but I’ve got full confidence in his ability to handle that.”
TEAMS FOR NEWLANDS
Western Province: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh (captain), 12 Michael van der Spuy, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Michael Rhodes, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Michael Carizza, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Stephan Coetzee, 1 Alistair Vermaak. Replacements: 16 Neil Rautenbach, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Ruan Botha, 19 Rynhardt Elstadt, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Kurt Coleman, 22 Jaco Taute.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Sampie Mastriet, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Jono Ross, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann (captain), 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Marcel van der Merwe. Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Hencus van Wyk, 18 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Rudy Paige, 21 Tony Jantjies, 22 Jesse Kriel.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge