Cheslin Kolbe returns for South Africa to face England
Star winger will start in Yokohama as coach Rassie Erasmus largely sticks to his guns
Chelsin Kolbe of South Africa performs a drill during training ahead of the Rugby World Cup final against England. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Rugby World Cup final: England v South Africa
Kick-off: 9am Irish time, Saturday. Venue: Yokohama International Stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 8.30am. On TV: Live on Eir Sport, RTÉ2 and ITV.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is the understandable motto when you’ve reached a Rugby World Cup final and hence the only change Rassie Erasmus has made to his starting Springboks’ XV is to welcome back the incomparably quick-footed and quick-witted Cheslin Kolbe.
The Toulouse game breaker missed the semi-final arm-wrestle-cum-kickfest with Wales due to a recurrence of the ankle injury which he had suffered in the pool stages.
“Obviously we were a bit nervous when we lost him for the semi-final,” admitted Erasmus. “But the nice thing about our squad at this stage is that with Warrick Gelant, who was unlucky to miss out to S’bu Nkosi, and what we have in S’bu, with what he also showed (in the semi-final), is that we have good squad depth.
“But Cheslin is world-class. He showed it all over whenever he has played for us – no matter if he slotted in at 15 or played wing. Everybody knows that he’s got that X-factor, and against England, the way they defend, it is something that we will definitely need.”
In a clear signal of intent, Erasmus has also retained his favoured bench makeup of six forwards and two backs. The versatile Frans Steyn is the only survivor in either squad from South Africa’s second World Cup triumph, courtesy of 15-6 win over England 15-6 in Paris, when Steyn kicked one of the Boks’ five penalties in a tryless decider.
When Erasmus assumed the role of head coach in March last year, the Springboks had lost 11 of their 25 Tests since the 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat by the All Blacks. In the 25 since, they have won 16, drawn one and lost eight, and in this calendar year their only defeat in 11 matches was their pool opener against the All Blacks.
He was asked if he thought, deep down, that they could reach the final.
“With the amount of players that we have and the supporters that we have, I think overall, the resources available to us – schools, players, facilities support – if we get our structures and everything around that in order, I think us hitting rock-bottom made us realise that we had to fix it.
“With all of that available to us, there is no reason we can’t be a force in world rugby. We don’t think that we are now suddenly a force back in world rugby. We’ve reached a World Cup final, yes, that’s great, and we will try our utmost best to win it, and we really think we are in with a good chance of giving England a real go and trying to win it on Saturday.
“But I guess the big challenge is to be consistent now. It’s a nice springboard for us to take it forward now with the players that we have, and all the good coaches we have, the facilities and good structures, we should stay in the top three in world rugby. Or at least consistently compete for that.”
A third Springboks’ World Cup could never emulate the impact of 1995, when Nelson Mandela wore a Springboks’ jersey and handed the trophy to Francois Pienaar. Nonetheless, Erasmus can vividly recall that day and says that, once again, healing some of the wounds in South Africa is a powerful spur for this squad.
“In ‘95, I was a student in Bloemfontein, and we were staying on the rugby fields there by the university grounds – I was sharing a house with Naka Drotské, who was playing in the World Cup final. We were all watching the game at the university rugby grounds.
“We all know what impact that had for our country. Should we win it on Saturday – it is already having a big impact for us, having been a little bit more successful. I’m not saying we are there yet, but we are being a little bit more successful in terms of our results. We do have some challenges in our country at different levels and at different avenues.
“But rugby is one of the things that – for a few minutes and sometimes a few hours, days and months if we win – people seem to forget about their disagreements and stop disagreeing for a while, and agree,” said Erasmus, also citing the example of 2007.
“That is definitely for us an extra motivation for Saturday,” he added. “We are trying to win for South Africa, and not just because they are supporters, but because our country needs a lot of things that we want to fix, and we want to help fix that.”
Erasmus made Siya Kolisi, who will be winning his 50th cap in the final, the first black player to captain the Springboks but on Thursday he admitted that neither he nor Kolisi fully appreciated the symbolism attached to this appointment.
“To be honest with you, the initial appointment of Siya as captain, my plan never was this big thing to get the country behind us and have another plan with Siya. I’m quite honest with you now, and you’ll one day hear from the players how Siya was appointed captain.
“Siya was actually the best Super Rugby-performing team captain, and that’s the reason why he became captain of the Springboks. It was very sudden on him – I didn’t have a lot of conversations with him before that first Test match he became the captain (against England in June last year).
“So, it wasn’t like four or five months where we sat down and worked out a strategy and a plan. It was just before the England Test match, and Pieter-Steph (du Toit) was captain for the Wales test match.
“It was a sudden thing, and I was caught a bit off – maybe a bit naive – in thinking that this would be such a massive thing for him. I was a bit naive, because the whole emotional things that went around that in South Africa, about having the first black captain for the Springboks, certainly caught Siya off guard, it caught me off guard. And I thought his game suffered a little bit in the first few games. Then he got better and better, and we always knew he was a great player.
“When that got better, he got an injury, and when he got back from the injury, then he had to be captain again, and we had to get him slowly back into the mix for the World Cup. But the timing is great now. The last two games, he had great games again, and we also managed his game time really well. He is firing fit to have a good final.
“It’s his 50th Test match, and it is fitting and a wonderful occasion for a guy to be the captain, the first black captain – now it’s also sunk into me. I understand how big it is, and I am not so naive anymore.
“It is a wonderful story, and for him to handle those emotional – not stress – but emotional extras, which come with something that I didn’t expect, is just wonderful, and really, well done by him.”
Erasmus again confirmed that this will be his last Test as the hands-on head coach of the Springboks before reverting to the role for which he was originally hired from Munster in 2017, namely the SARU Director of Rugby.
“It’s wonderful to be here. It’s sad that it’s only three days, and then it is all over. But I will be heavily involved, hopefully, still after this – whatever way we are going to go with the head coach.
“I have enjoyed it thoroughly, and whatever happens on Saturday, we have to make sure we use this for the next four, five, six, seven years, that it doesn’t get lost again, the positivity, what we get out of Saturday.”
South Africa: Willie Le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Tendai Mtawarira, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager; Siya Kolisi (capt), Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.