Rugby | No 9: Might Kolbe switch be forced?

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – The aftermath of the two
Vodacom Super Rugby derbies in South Africa last Saturday was dominated by
Allister Coetzee’s announcement of his maiden Springbok squad …. quickly
masking a perturbing event at Newlands.

Once their match reports on the Stormers v
Cheetahs clash or Loftus’s encounter between the Bulls and Lions were
completed, scribes quickly turned their attention fulsomely to discussion of
Coetzee’s 31-strong party.

At least as far as the Capetonian fixture
was concerned, it meant that relatively little was made of Cheslin Kolbe, the
mercurial little Stormers fullback, being knocked out cold and stretchered off
… again.

The game itself was uncompromising and
often ill-tempered, but not for the first time in 2016 Kolbe unjustly ended up
being the most damaged contestant physically; the protracted push-and-shove
between Bok team-mates Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager ended up being little
more than that.

In general play, following a kick
charge-down, Kolbe made accidental head contact with a Cheetahs player and was

Coach Robbie Fleck admitted afterwards that
his tenacious No 15 briefly lost consciousness as he was given extended medical
attention and then taken off on the buggy, to the clear consternation of
Stormers colleagues.

Kolbe, who is now earmarked for fresh
Blitzbokke duty as they prepare for the Olympic Sevens, has racked up at least
three significant, concussion-suspected head blows in the space of almost
exactly two months.

On March 26, his worrisome sequence began
when he was similarly left “lights out” against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires,
and a mere fortnight later the 1.71m, less-than-80kg competitor collected a
cynical, late shoulder to the head from Sunwolves lock Tim Bond, who was
red-carded for his sins.

Kolbe sports exemplary courage for an
unusually small “back three” modern rugby player, and constantly brushes aside
his blows to come back rapidly for further service to his franchise and with no
less resolve and commitment – others of greater physical proportions might well
be psychologically impeded.

Concussion comes in varying degrees of
severity and is sometimes later ruled out altogether in head bangs for players,
of course, but recognition that Kolbe was knocked out against both the Jaguares
and Cheetahs nevertheless suggests events leaning toward a more serious nature
in each instance.

There is also open-ended debate around just
how many concussions are “OK” (for want of a better word) for a sportsperson:
someone like the beefy, still-active Waratahs and Wallabies hooker Tatafu
Polota-Nau, 30, is believed to have had around a dozen and been urged by some
fellow-players and medical experts to retire.

Several players in recent years have hung
up their boots reluctantly and prematurely due to repeated head traumas – among
them Crusaders and All Black fullback Leon MacDonald (at32), Reds and Wallabies
utility back Elton Flatley (28) and more recently Chiefs front-ranker Ben
Afeaki (27).

Concussion can lead to long-term brain
damage, with possible links to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

English rugby writer Steve James wrote in
the Daily Telegraph (
last year that concussions were up 59 percent in the Aviva Premiership and
2014/15 “was the season in which it became clearer than ever that concussion is
now rugby’s greatest problem”.

He said the breakdown had become “a frenzy
of hostility and collision”.

It would almost certainly be overly
alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that the diminutive Kolbe is anywhere near
the concussion-related tallies of players like those listed above, but it also
needs to be remembered that he is only 22 so he has “started young”, and presumably
worryingly so, in bad head knocks.

Kolbe operates for the Stormers in a last-line
position where the potential for receiving heavy, high-speed tackles –
sometimes legal, sometimes inevitably ill-timed or even malicious – is greater
than most, and his lightweight frame hardly helps in cushioning the impact.

Outspoken pundit and former Bok coach Nick
Mallett continues to insist that Kolbe be coaxed toward a conversion – even if
would require time and patience – to scrumhalf, where he believes his elusive
qualities and array of footballing skills are better suited physically; he
would almost certainly be less prone to forceful batterings in a defensive

There have been widely divergent reactions
to Mallett’s theory, and I confess to mixed feelings personally; Kolbe’s
weaving, thrillingly swift counter-attacks from the big, open space at fullback
remain a thing of beauty.

South African rugby needs every free
spirit, every X-factor guy it can get.

But I also wince, as others probably do,
when he is lying motionless on the deck, surrounded by cautious, stabilising medical
personnel after a crack to the head.

There may be no risk yet, but I would hate
to see Kolbe’s career shortened.

And I sometimes wonder if a switch to No 9
may eventually occur more through medical wisdom rather than pure rugby positional
debate …

our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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