Jon Cardinelli

Kolisi’s living the dream

Siya Kolisi is set to make his Springbok debut this Saturday. In the October 2011 issue of SA Rugby magazine, he spoke to JON CARDINELLI about his journey from Zwide to Cape Town.

In the hearts and minds of the people of Zwide, Siya Kolisi is already a superstar. They come together on game day, congregating at a humble watering hole called Graham’s Place. Most don’t own TV sets, let alone a satellite dish and decoder, but fortunately this particular venue is one of the few in the rural Eastern Cape that is DStv-equipped. Graham’s Place will give the Zwide masses what they want: an opportunity to support one of their own.

It doesn’t matter that Kolisi wears the blue and white hoops of Western Province rather than the red and black of the EP Kings. The clamour builds when the camera pans to the bare-headed flanker. The room erupts when Kolisi is shown breaking tackles and rounding defenders en route to the tryline. The patrons of Graham’s Place take great pleasure in celebrating the realisation of a lifelong dream.

‘It’s always an amazing experience for me to go back to Zwide,’ the humble 20-year-old says. ‘The support of the people is terrific, so much so that my family tends to be very protective. They wrap me in cotton wool,’ he says with a laugh, obviously charmed by the gesture. ‘They treat me like a baby.

‘My father is especially thrilled that I have this opportunity at Western Province. It’s all he ever wanted for me.’

Kolisi may be the first member of his family to play professional rugby, but he is not the first of his kin to embrace the sport. His grandfather, father and uncles all played club rugby in the township while he was growing up. Rugby was in his genes, but it was also a powerful desire to follow in their footsteps that ultimately paved the way to a better life.

At 12, he impressed the scouts at a provincial tournament in Mossel Bay and was subsequently offered a scholarship to Grey Junior in his Grade 7 year. His success at Grey High led to opportunities with Eastern Province at the U16 Grant Khomo Week and U18 Craven Week, as well as opportunities with the SA U16 Elite, SA Schools and SA U18 Elite teams. It was an important period where he was forced to develop quickly as a player and person, but his persistence and strength of character was eventually rewarded with contract offers from Free State and WP.

‘That moment when I was awarded the scholarship to Grey was life-changing,’ he remembers. ‘It was a new start for me; I learned so much. I didn’t really know how to speak English before that, and I came from a different background and culture, having lived in a township. I would have to say that rugby made me the person I am today.’

Kolisi may have grown up in the Eastern Cape but it’s been a dream of his, and of his father, to represent WP. He grew up idolising Joe van Niekerk and Bob Skinstad, and later drew inspiration from the likes of Schalk Burger, Luke Watson, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw.

It’s for these reasons that he accepted WP’s contract offer and joined the union in 2010. He has since progressed through the age-group ranks to the Stormers’ greater training squad and the senior WP Currie Cup side, and was even asked to represent his country when Dawie Theron selected him for the 2011 Junior World Championship in Italy.

What followed that would prove to be another test of his character. While in Italy with the Baby Boks, Kolisi received a call from the Stormers’ management asking him to return to Cape Town immediately. The Cape side had suffered a spate of loose forward injuries, and Kolisi would be needed on the bench for their Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders. As he boarded the plane back to South Africa, he daydreamed excitedly about making his debut in front of a capacity crowd at Newlands.

It was unfortunately a dream that would not be realised, at least not in the 2011 season. Kolisi was viciously attacked and robbed just a week before the play-off. His assailants left him with a concussion, as well as shoulder and wrist injuries that would shatter his Super Rugby semi-final aspirations. The melee would also leave him emotionally traumatised, and if not for the compassion shown by the WP players, management and administration he may not have made such a complete recovery.

‘Playing for the Baby Boks was a dream come true, but I was even more excited when I got the call to return to Cape Town to play for the Stormers. When I heard that I would be playing in the semi-final, I phoned all of my friends and family back in the Eastern Cape and told them the good news, and they promised that they would watch me on TV.

‘[The mugging] was a terrible incident. I only had my bank card in my wallet and they wanted me to go and draw more money from the ATM. Things started to get out of hand. They attacked me and afterwards I was so beat up that I could hardly speak. It wasn’t just the physical pain either, I was really shaken up emotionally. If there was a loud noise, I would jump.

‘It took a while for me to calm down and get back to normal. I’m grateful that everybody at WP was so good to me during that time; they were there for me when I needed them the most. They’re the reason I play with a smile on my face, and I really feel that I’m part of a family rather than just part of a rugby team.’

Springbok call-ups, injuries and Louw’s defection to Bath meant there would be opportunities for WP’s raft of young loose forwards during the early stages of the Currie Cup. Kolisi certainly made his opportunities count, and his defining performance was undoubtedly the Man of the Match effort against the Blue Bulls at Newlands. The hard work behind the scenes was starting to pay off.

WP assistant coach Matt Proudfoot says Kolisi first caught his eye during the U19 domestic competition last year. He was identified by the senior management as one for the future, and brought into the greater squad during Super Rugby in order to expose him to the structures and gauge his ability. Apart from a natural feel for the game, the coaches saw something more.

‘He was very raw, but he was willing to learn and not be intimidated by the physicality or the workload. This was all-important from a forward’s perspective,’ says Proufdfoot.

‘Perhaps the most impressive thing about Siya is his attitude; he’s had a tough life but he’s stayed positive and more than anything else he wants to move forward. He has a massive future not just because of his talent, but also because of his attitude. The X factor is what makes you a Springbok, but you need a certain amount of character and determination to make that dream a reality.’

While he is grateful for every chance he gets, Kolisi dares to dream about what could come next if he continues to work hard and improve in specific areas of the game. Come the 2012 Super Rugby season, the citizens of Zwide may have good cause to congregate at Graham’s Place and celebrate yet another lofty achievement.

‘I want to win the Currie Cup as part of this side,’ he says. ‘That is everyone’s priority at the moment. I also want to play well enough to become a valuable member of the side and be in contention for Super Rugby caps next year. I will need to gain some weight before I can do that, though [he’s 101kg – significantly lighter than the average blindside flank], so I’ve been focusing on my conditioning, while my defence and lineout work have also required attention. What I have improved is my work rate and the coaches have really backed me to express myself, so I have some freedom to run with the ball, and gain some momentum on attack. Playing alongside experienced Currie Cup and Super Rugby players has also been great for my confidence, and I’m very excited to see what happens in the next few months.’

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