PORT ELIZABETH — Gio Aplon should probably have a played a lot more Test matches for the Springboks than the 17 next to his name.
Aplon was, and still is, a special talent that was overlooked countless times because of the size of his calves and biceps. He was always judged on his magnificent ability to swerve past defenders like a butterfly or the fact that he is probably one of the most balanced runners with a rugby ball that this country has ever produced.
It didn’t matter that he was a match-winner with ball in hand, or that he actually had an educated boot. It didn’t matter that he punched way above his weight and hardly missed a tackle or that he was actually very good in the air as a fullback. What mattered was his 80kg.
At 36 years old, Aplon’s best days are probably behind him, even though he was still carving up defences in the French Top 14 a few years back. It’s a real shame that South Africans didn’t actually see the best of the Hawston-born speedster in the green and gold.
A couple of years back, it seemed like Aplon’s good friend Cheslin Kolbe’s career was going down a similar path. It looked like the green-and-gold jersey was going to evade him like he dodges would-be tacklers on a rugby field.
Kolbe, a supremely talented player, was overlooked because of his size, rather than his unique ability to beat players with his electrifying step and incredible speed off the mark.
Kolbe didn’t admit it, but part of his decision to leave the Stormers and South Africa for Toulouse in France must have been the fact he was overlooked by Allister Coetzee for higher honours. When he left in 2017, the 30-cap rule for overseas-based players was in full effect.
But now, a year later, Kolbe has a couple of Tests under the belt – including a win over the All Blacks in New Zealand – and will make his first start for the Boks against Australia at the Nelson Mandela Stadium on Saturday.
Kolbe is slowly, but surely, debunking the notion that you must be 100kg to compete with wings such as Rieko Ioane, who was floored in a one-on-one tackle by Kolbe close to the Boks’ line, despite the 28kg difference between them. Kolbe also scored a vital intercept try in Wellington because of his great anticipation, which helped the Boks triumph in New Zealand for the first time in nine years.
“I always say I’m not the biggest player on the field and playing against opposition players who are bigger than me just excites me,” Kolbe told media ahead of the Rugby Championship clash with the Wallabies.
“It doesn’t matter what size or what weight you are, I just have that excitement to prove to people that you don’t need the size or weight behind you to tackle someone. You just need the belief and the right mindset and back yourself.”
Kolbe says he never gave up hope of wearing the green and gold despite moving to France. His performances in the Top 14 caught the eye of Erasmus, and now he has played himself into contention to make the Springboks’ World Cup squad for the next year’s showpiece event in Japan.
“This is my first start in a Springbok jersey and I’m quite excited,” Kolbe said.
“The decision I made at that stage wasn’t just based on rugby, but because I think I needed a change.
“I always told myself that I would never give up that goal, the dream to wear the green and gold jersey. God’s timing is always the best timing and I kept on working hard and just play the best rugby that I can.
“I’m still learning and finding my feet in the team, but with my teammates and the guys around me, it makes it easier. They give me positive advice on the field and it makes my job a lot easier.”
Kolbe is showing that rugby is a game for all sizes and Aplon should be especially proud.