YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — The Springboks needed inspiration. It came from their smallest player.
Cheslin Kolbe, three of whose five test tries have been against New Zealand, had the All Blacks tryline in his sights again in Yokohama on Saturday. South Africa was trailing 17-3 in the second half of their compelling Rugby World Cup pool match when Kolbe made a break down the right touchline. South Africans in the crowd of 68,000-plus stood and roared.
All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo'unga was tracking Kolbe, who turned him inside out and was almost free and coming to the line. But Mo'unga stretched to snag Kolbe and knock the ball out meters from his tryline.
"It was a match-winner or close to it," New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said of Mo'unga's tackle after the All Blacks won 23-13. "I thought our scramble defense was really good. Rich got back and played that one well. It was a pretty big moment."
Kolbe, hurting from the loss, smiled when the moment was raised with him.
"He showed a good pair of wheels," Kolbe said. "If I could have got that one in, the game could have been different."
Kolbe has pretty good wheels, too. The game could have been different if he'd converted any of his rousing surges. There was another from a Faf de Klerk break while they trailed 17-10. And another scorching break five minutes from fulltime when he zipped all the way into the All Blacks' 22 only to be swamped by three defenders and turned over. He was too fast for his teammates to support.
That last run brought on cramp and, finally, the slippery speedster was contained. But Kolbe had made 118 meters in the match, almost twice as much as anyone else on the field. And he'd also beaten 11 defenders, another game high.
"He's amazing, he's a pocket rocket," All Blacks flanker Ardie Savea said. "He's probably the smallest on the field and the hardest to tackle."
Despite his size and frequent doubters, the 1.70-meter Kolbe has been leaving tacklers swiping at air all over the world. He won an Olympic bronze medal with the South Africa sevens team, played Super Rugby for the Stormers, and was hired by Toulouse two years ago. In his first season he was named the Top 14 foreign player of the year, and last season he helped Toulouse win the Top 14 title. They extended his contract to 2023.
He's often compared to wing greats Jason Robinson and Shane Williams, who were also smaller players. He shares their defiant attitude, at least.
"I'll just have to make sure if I get another opportunity like that," Kolbe said of being stopped by Mo'unga, "that I'll capitalize and turn that into points."
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