There is much at stake for Siya Kolisi as he commits his future to the Sharks, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
The statesman, the entrepreneur, the philanthropist, the dedicated dad. Siya Kolisi wears all these hats, and more.
Every day, Kolisi is inundated with interview requests and business propositions. His status as the 2019 World Cup-winning captain – as well as his partnership with Jay-Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation – has given him the means to reach out and help less fortunate communities across South Africa. Somehow, he still finds time for his wife and two kids, as well as his two teenage siblings.
More recently, Kolisi has been keen to impress that he has unfinished business as a player. According to the man himself, he is yet to realise his potential as an athlete.
There’s been a lot of hype around Kolisi’s move to the Sharks. It’s a move that made commercial sense, when you consider that the American consortium MVM Holdings – who recently acquired a 51% stake in the Durban-based franchise – is associated with Roc Nation.
Kolisi, however, maintains that he moved to the Sharks to take his fitness and technical expertise to the next level. While he’s a lot of things to a lot of different people, he’s still a rugby player at his core.
‘I’ve got a new fight on my hands,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘A fight to regain full fitness as well as a fight to make the starting lineup of a world-class Sharks side. There’s a lot riding on those battles.’
Injuries have compromised Kolisi’s quest for fitness over the past three years. In early 2019, he sustained a serious knee injury that ruled him out for much of the Super Rugby competition and the entire Rugby Championship.
Rassie Erasmus selected Kolisi to lead South Africa at the World Cup in Japan, but made it clear that he would carefully manage the player over the campaign. It’s for this reason that Kolisi was routinely subbed in the second half of the big matches – including the World Cup final against England.
‘We let our hair down for a bit after winning the trophy, and rightly so,’ Kolisi says. ‘From there on, I didn’t have the opportunity to have a proper pre-season or to enjoy an extended run.’
Kolisi sustained another serious knee injury in the opening game of the 2020 season. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the Super Rugby tournament was suspended. South African players spent six months away from the game.
‘I tried to train in lockdown, but it was difficult with my injury. I picked up a hamstring niggle when we returned to play, and I injured it again during the Currie Cup.’
During the Covid-19 break, Kolisi took the opportunity – in partnership with his wife Rachel – to launch the Kolisi Foundation. With his rugby dream on hold, he put all his energy into chasing another.
‘It really opened my eyes to see what people experience on a daily basis,’ he says. ‘Do I have the right to complain about something when there are people in the townships who don’t even have food or water?
‘We worked hard to do our part and I’m proud of what we achieved. I’m excited about what the future holds, because that is everything for me. I want to be remembered for making a difference in people’s lives.’
A few in the rugby community, however, felt his work in the townships and his drive to raise awareness about pressing social issues would ultimately compromise his primary role. Kolisi was frustrated to hear people talking about a perceived lack of commitment.
‘Sometimes it feels like people are looking for things that aren’t there,’ he says. ‘There’s no way I was at my best in 2020. I admit that. But to say that my performance was linked to my activities off the field is wide of the mark.
‘Maybe people think I skipped training to do all that work in the communities? That’s just not true. My Stormers teammates will vouch for the fact I gave my all at every training session.
‘If I sacrificed anything, it was time with my family. And in that case, I made sure my family understood exactly why I couldn’t spend time with them. If I didn’t go out to help those in need, who would?’
Not for the first time in the interview, Kolisi challenges the idea that a professional athlete should be limited to their primary role.
‘I had the chance to chat to Roger Federer recently. He’s celebrated for the work he does off the tennis court.
‘Roger made it clear to me that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity to make a difference if he didn’t train at 100% and if he didn’t get the necessary results. In a sense, he is performing for a chance to help.
‘I don’t know how people could think this will automatically lead to a drop in performance. Look at the athletes who are always giving back, like Roger, Rafa Nadal, LeBron James … it hasn’t impacted on their performances, has it?
‘You have to be the best on the field to get a chance to make a difference off the field. Performance and social responsibility actually go hand-in-hand.’
Kolisi has been living with his brother-in-law since moving to the east coast. Rachel, his two kids Nicholas and Keziah, and his siblings Liphelo and Liyema will remain in Cape Town until the end of the school year.
‘Some might prefer a bit of time to settle and focus on the task at hand. Not me. I’m finding it even more challenging without my family around to provide support.
‘Usually when you come home after a long, tough day of training, the kids are around to help you feel better. I had that when I was playing for the Stormers in Cape Town, and I think it’s one of the reasons I coped with the stress at the 2019 World Cup. Our families were allowed to join us in Japan.
‘I don’t have that support system right now. I miss it. My family makes me stronger.’
And yet, the 29-year-old remains committed to realising his rugby goal. If he can build Kolisi 2.0, the sacrifice will not have been in vain.
He laughs when he’s asked what a new and improved version of Siya Kolisi might look like.
‘It’s simple, I just want to get the ball in my hands and run,’ he says. ‘That’s how I made a name for myself at the Stormers all those years ago. I’d like more opportunities to show what I can do as a ball-carrier.
‘Of course, I’ll have to be in peak physical condition to perform that role,’ he continues. ‘The Sharks have made that clear. There’s a strong culture and they set high standards. They don’t care whether or not you’re the Springbok captain, they’ll tell you if you’re not keeping up. I’m enjoying that.’
When Kolisi arrived in Durban, Sharks coach Sean Everitt expressed his appreciation for what the Boks had done for the country at the 2019 World Cup. At the same time, he made it clear he would judge Kolisi by his performances on the field.
‘We put a plan in place to get me ready,’ says Kolisi. ‘Jimmy Wright [the Sharks biokineticist] and the conditioning team pushed me hard and encouraged me to embrace a new philosophy. Conditioning is not about physical work, it’s about a healthier lifestyle.
‘I’ve been working closely with a dietician and eating a lot better. It also hasn’t hurt that my brother-in-law Joel is a chef. We eat very well at home.’
The Sharks will compete in the Rainbow Cup before turning their attention to the new Pro16 tournament – which is due to start in September. The Boks, of course, won’t be looking any further than the Test series against the British & Irish Lions in July and August.
Having been granted an extensive opportunity to prepare, Kolisi is confident his body will be up to the challenge.
‘I have a lot more I want to achieve as a rugby player. There is no shortage of motivation.
‘A lot of doors have opened for me since we won the World Cup,’ he adds. ‘Those doors might close if I don’t perform. There’s plenty at stake.’
SERVING UNDER LUKHANYO AM
When Siya Kolisi arrived in Durban, fans wondered if the Springbok captain would displace Lukhanyo Am as the Sharks skipper.
Kolisi, however, said he was happy to focus on his responsibilities as a player.
‘Everyone who knows me will tell you I’ve never seen myself as a captain,’ he says. ‘My approach to leadership is that I’m here to serve. I don’t have an ego.
‘I was happy when they announced that Lukey would remain captain. We get on really well, and I went to him straight away and asked him what he needed from me. I will always have his back.
‘He’s a calm and quiet guy by nature. We’re quite similar in that respect. Like me, he also prefers to use the leaders around him to maximum effect.’