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Cheslin Kolbe described the act of people being stabbed and killed as a regular occurrence.
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Cheslin Kolbe described the act of people being stabbed and killed as a regular occurrence.

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As I sit here, Cheslin Kolbe reflects on the familiar sense of danger he feels on a quiet morning in Cape Town. Growing up, he witnessed acts of violence such as shootings and stabbings on the Cape Flats. He also tragically recalls the murder of a childhood friend, whose tongue was brutally removed, shortly before Kolbe achieved his first World Cup victory as a Springbok wing 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.

Kolbe acknowledges that the haunting memories are not easily forgotten. He laments that an image can become ingrained in one’s mind, but also recognizes that it can serve as a reminder to stay humble. It can bring one back to their roots and the struggles they have faced in life. He is grateful to now be in a more privileged position compared to others in his community and throughout South Africa.

Kolbe emphasizes that he has numerous pleasant recollections, such as the enthusiastic welcome the Springboks received upon their return from France last year. They proudly displayed the World Cup trophy to a jubilant crowd of black and white South Africans.

Cheslin Kolbe takes a selfie with Springboks supporters during the trophy tour in Cape Town after the 2023 World Cup

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According to the speaker, while 2019 was a significant year, it pales in comparison to the previous year. The incredible scenes of joy and happiness displayed by people of all ages in South Africa during the rugby games demonstrate the immense joy that the sport brings. As players, the impact and memories of such moments will endure forever. With the World Cup occurring only every four years, there is a sense of duty to utilize our platform to bring hope and inspiration every day.

Kolbe’s motivation to assist those in desperate situations stems from his upbringing, where violence, drug use, and gang conflicts were prevalent. He recalls that as a child, he would visit his grandmother in Scottsville, an area known for its chaos, as a form of entertainment. Witnessing fights, drinking, and other reckless behavior sparked a desire for something more meaningful in his own life.

Kolbe recalls the area being referred to as a “real ghetto”, but his perspective shifted when he went there with friends who later joined a gang. Despite this, he maintains positive relationships with them due to their shared childhood. However, one Friday after school, they were involved in a confrontation where a gun was fired. In fear, Kolbe ran to his grandmother’s house, unable to speak and overcome with emotion.

Kolbe is disappointed and disheartened by the prevalence of gang activity, drug sales, and violence. He shares an experience where he was stopped by two individuals near his grandmother’s house and threatened with a knife. Despite being only 12 years old, he felt powerless against these individuals who had likely been in prison.

Kolbe was able to overcome adversity through his impressive quickness and athletic abilities, ultimately earning a rugby scholarship. He credits sports as his means of escape, particularly playing barefoot touch rugby in the streets of Kraaifontein, which gave him hope. He also acknowledges the sacrifices his parents made and the role that sports played in helping him break free from his circumstances.

Most of Kolbe’s acquaintances were unable to escape. “Wayne was one of my closest companions and, as we grew up, we did everything together every day. He was probably the most reserved person you could find, yet he was also one of the most gifted athletes I’ve ever seen in cricket, athletics, and rugby. However, he did not have the same stable family life as I did. He would be approached by gang members who would give him material possessions, such as a T-shirt, shoes, or money, in exchange for his loyalty. They would make him feel valued, but he was unaware that there would be a price to pay. It started with small tasks like delivering drugs or selling them, but eventually, he became so deeply involved that he owed them money. To repay his debt, he resorted to robbing people.”

“We were deeply troubled to witness his journey from selling drugs to succumbing to drug use, and eventually rising through the ranks of gang warfare. It was distressing to see him facing threats. Whenever I returned to South Africa, I made sure to check in with his family to inquire about his well-being, as he had a history of being in and out of prison.”

In 2019, Kolbe was on the brink of leading South Africa to victory in the World Cup when he received devastating news about his friend Wayne. Wayne had been brutally murdered in a public space, tortured by having his fingers, toes, ears, and tongue cut off. Kolbe was in France at the time and learned that Wayne had been killed by members of a gang. It was a heartbreaking loss for Kolbe, as they had been childhood friends.

Cheslin Kolbe blocks Thomas Ramos’s conversion attempt in the World Cup quarter-final in Paris

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Kolbe peers at the Zoom screen, his expression filled with agony. However, he promptly mentions that there are many others facing similar situations who require guidance and encouragement. Therefore, whenever he returns home, he makes an effort to dedicate more time to giving back. With the foundation he and his wife are establishing, they hope to make an even greater impact.

He has gained immense recognition on the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa. However, for a long time, Kolbe was disregarded due to his small size. Despite standing at 5 feet 7 inches and possessing extraordinary speed and skill, the increasing physical demands of modern rugby made it difficult for coaches to see him as a potential international player. He was advised to switch to a scrum-half position in order to improve his chances of success.

However, Kolbe’s relocation to France in 2017 showcased his impressive ability to score tries. A year later, he was chosen as a starting player by South Africa’s inspiring new coach, Rassie Erasmus. Since then, Kolbe has participated in 31 Tests, scoring 14 tries and helping his team win consecutive World Cups. This is a commendable accomplishment and serves as a testament to how much France has contributed to his success.

“I was warmly embraced in France and embraced for my physical build and desired position on the team. I arrived on a Tuesday and competed in my first Top 14 game just four days later, despite not knowing the language or game strategy. The Toulouse coach, Ugo Mola, had great faith in me and helped shape me into the player I am today. The Top 14 is an incredibly physical league, with weekly battles against Pacific Island players and strong French opponents. As a result, I became more physical and improved my defensive strength.”

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Kolbe also became less involved in rugby. He enjoyed immersing himself in off-field experiences. He made the choice to be open-minded and learn the culture and language, which earned him more respect from the French community. This was not a simple task as he was only 23 years old. However, with a new daughter, his focus was on providing the best for his family.

Can his friends from France forgive him for blocking Thomas Ramos’s conversion in a crucial World Cup quarter-final last October, leading to South Africa’s 29-28 victory over the hosts in Paris? Kolbe jokes, “I’m not sure if I’m the most liked person in France, but I still have strong connections with my former teammates and coaches.”

Kolbe also successfully scored a try, but his impressive speed and precise timing in blocking Ramos’s kick were even more noteworthy. While there has been some discussion about the legality of his move, I assure you that we thoroughly analyze and put in the hard work. I have played alongside Thomas in Toulouse for four seasons, so I am very familiar with his kicking routine as I have practiced with him extensively. It all came down to split-second decisions on when to act, and I am confident that I followed all the rules and regulations.

South Africa emerged as the victors of the World Cup by a very small margin, as they managed to secure wins in all three of their knockout games by just one point. The team’s motto of perseverance and determination was evident throughout their performance.

However, during the last 10 minutes of the final match against New Zealand, Kolbe was penalized and had to leave the field. He confesses feeling helpless and empty in that moment, but also offers a different perspective. He believes that his yellow card was a sign from God for him to provide a different contribution to the team – praying for the country and his teammates in the midst of the intense match. Despite the stressful and challenging situation, he trusts that everything happens for a reason. As the game ended, he looked into the stands and saw his parents, wife, and children in tears. After feeling relieved, he also felt satisfaction knowing that all the sacrifices and hard work had paid off.

Cheslin Kolbe in action for Tokyo Sungoliath in DecemberView image in fullscreen

Kolbe is currently participating in club rugby in Japan and he expresses his satisfaction by saying, “I am thoroughly enjoying my time here. The Japanese people are incredibly friendly, polite, and respectful. Additionally, my club has been incredibly supportive of both me and my family. While Layla and the kids also had a great experience, we have now returned to Cape Town so that the children can attend school here. Although it will not be easy, I will be traveling between Tokyo and Cape Town in order to be with my family.”

According to Kolbe, the level of rugby in Japan has significantly improved. The league is highly competitive and if Japanese teams were to face off against those from the Top 14 or Premiership, it would be a challenging match.

The Japanese are very receptive to learning and we can also gain knowledge from them. I have observed that Japanese players run differently on a rugby field compared to others. It’s impressive. They have a strong work ethic.

Kolbe intends to stay involved in Test rugby and aims to be a part of the Springboks until at least 2027, when they will attempt to win their third consecutive World Cup. However, he remains focused on his current task of performing well in Japan and considers any further opportunities a bonus.

After returning home, Kolbe plans to go back to the Cape Flats, where he has seen a lot of violence and despair, and offer assistance. After a lengthy discussion, Kolbe agrees and speaks softly but with conviction, saying: “If I can connect with someone, converse with them, and positively impact their life, it’s not just a personal accomplishment but it can also have a ripple effect on others. We must continue to strive to help.”

Source: theguardian.com