Siya Kolisi has helped to bring the Springboks, and South Africa, together, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The rugby world waited in anticipation as Siya Kolisi made his way down the tunnel and on to the Ellis Park pitch. After 127 years, Springbok rugby was set to embark on a new and exciting journey.
Kolisi became the first black African to captain the Boks when he led the side out in the first Test against England. The significance of the achievement wasn’t lost on a diverse South African crowd, who greeted the new skipper as well as a team featuring six black Africans with an ear-splitting roar of approval.
Moments later, the spiritual home of South African rugby erupted as the national anthem reached a crescendo. That remarkable display of unity on an important occasion in South African rugby history felt like a triumph in itself.
Media outlets at home and abroad hailed Kolisi as a symbol of the country’s progress. President Cyril Ramaphosa added his voice to the social media conversation shortly after the Boks’ dramatic victory at Ellis Park.
‘Well done to the Boks on a great win – a superb performance playing against England under the capable leadership of our new captain Siya Kolisi,’ Ramaphosa tweeted.
Earlier that week, Brendan Venter had describedKolisi as a unifying force. The former Springbok centre was well placed to make an informed comment, having worked with Kolisi and the national side as a consultant during the 2017 season. Venter wasn’t afraid to challenge the perception – which was articulated by some fans on social media and even one reporter at a press conference before the first Test against England – that Kolisi was a political appointment.
‘In the mould of former Springbok captains Gary Teichmann and John Smit, Siya boasts the ability to glue the team together and unite players from the different franchises. Everybody likes and respects Siya, which is what makes him a unanimous choice,’ Venter wrote in a column for SARugbymag.co.za.
‘Within the context of South African sport we talk about transformation and quotas, but Siya is definitely a first-choice starter on merit. His appointment is neither a transformation move nor is Rassie Erasmus trying to do the right thing from a political standpoint. Siya’s appointment as the first black African Test captain for South Africa is good for our country, but the responsibility has been afforded to an unbelievable person in the team.’
Neither Warren Whiteley nor Eben Etzebeth – two players who led the Boks in 2017 – were available for the June Tests due to injuries. Duane Vermeulen, who was another strong candidate for the captaincy, tells SA Rugby magazine why Erasmus made the right call to back Kolisi.
The Boks trailed England by 21 points after 18 minutes in the first Test, and by 12 points after 13 minutes in the second. Fortunately, the leadership group, with Kolisi making some important tactical changes in the heat of the moment and Vermeulen serving as a calming influence, managed to steer the side home on both occasions.
Kolisi and Vermeulen featured in the Stormers back row between 2012 and 2015. They first played together for the Boks in 2013.
‘I liked him from the moment I met him,’ Vermeulen says with a smile. ‘There was always something special about him, even in those early days. He’s grown so much since then. I have a lot of respect for what he’s achieved, and I know him to be a great team man and a great mate.
‘He’s South Africa’s first black Test captain. That’s a great achievement in itself. But, as I told him when he was appointed, I believe in him as an individual and as a leader. I am here to support him in any way I can. He did a tremendous job in the series against England and I look forward to working with him again in future.’
Kolisi was in high demand over the course of the three-Test series against England. The Springbok management team turned down most of the interview requests, citing a need to ease the burden on the 27-year-old’s shoulders.
SA Rugby magazine catches up with Kolisi a few weeks after the series victory against England. He’s more relaxed and has had some time to reflect on what transpired in his first three games as Bok captain.
‘The first week was really tough,’ he says. ‘A lot was said and written about me being the first black African to lead the Boks. Beyond being the first, I was happy and proud to have the chance to lead my country. It’s a great honour, something I never thought would come my way.
‘So much was happening in that series and I was trying my best to focus on the actual rugby,’ he adds. ‘I watched the video of that first Test again the other day. That moment when I ran on to the field … I was very emotional about it. It got me thinking about the whole series. That second game was special too, as it was Beast Mtawarira’s 100th Test and I was very happy for him. To run out at Free State Stadium and hear the crowd shouting his name like that, just as so many crowds around the world have shouted it for more than 10 years, was incredible. It felt like the whole of South Africa was shouting “Beeeaaasssttt!”’
Kolisi faced a number of challenges on and off the field. Shortly after receiving the captaincy, he was asked if he was a political appointment.
‘People have the right to ask questions,’ says Kolisi, who is as calm in dealing with the issue now as he was at the time of that first press conference. ‘Rassie Erasmus is not the type of person to select players on that basis. I’ve known him since I was at the Western Province academy and he was the Stormers’ director of rugby. He’s a straight-forward kind of guy who is honest with his players.
‘Was I surprised that particular question was asked? I suppose not. There will always be a few people who think that way. I don’t let it distract me or get me down. In fact, when I think about the way a lot of people, of all creeds and colours, supported us in Johannesburg, Bloem and Cape Town over the course of that series, the positives far outweigh the negatives. At the games, and even at the open training sessions, the support was incredible. It showed me that the people believe in us and are excited about the Boks again. We fed off that energy.’
On the other hand, Kolisi was wary of being swept up in the hype. Parallels were drawn between Nelson Mandela, who wore the No 6 jersey in support of the Boks at the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park, and Kolisi, who wore the No 6 jersey when he became the first black African to lead the Boks at the same ground 23 years later. In dealing with the question at a press conference before the first Test, Kolisi highlighted the difference between the two events, as well as his reverence for the former state president.
When the question is put to him again a few weeks later, after he’s had time to reflect, he confirms that his view hasn’t changed.
‘I never thought of it that way. The World Cup trophy handover in 1995 was a special moment between the captain Francois Pienaar and Tata Mandela. I don’t want to attach any great significance to the No 6 jersey now, over 20 years later. Getting the captaincy was special enough for me. I also feel that if I start looking for deeper meanings like that, I will put unnecessary pressure on myself. At the end of the day, I have a job to do on the field.’
Kolisi is quick to add that there is part of Mandela, who passed away in 2013, that will always be with the Boks. The team visited Robben Island – where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner – when they had a day off before the third Test against England in Cape Town.
‘It was a great experience. It takes you back to where this country has been and what Tata Mandela went through. It was a moment of celebration too as Tata Mandela would have been 100 years old this year. He’s one of my biggest heroes and I wish I could have met him. He may be gone, but I feel his spirit lives on.’
Perhaps the great man would have been proud of what unfolded on the field and in the stands at Ellis Park on 9 June. Kolisi’s family was at the game, with wife Rachel and children Nick and Keziah looking on as he led the Boks on to the pitch for the first time. Later, Kolisi received a video showing Nick (3) and Vermeulen’s oldest son Anru (4) singing the national anthem together.
Before that match, Kolisi received messages from three former Bok captains. That support, along with Erasmus’ vote of confidence, served to eradicate any doubt regarding his readiness for the responsibility.
‘When you receive support from former captains like Gary Teichmann, John Smit and Morné du Plessis, it’s a different thing altogether. They texted me to say that they backed me and I deserved this opportunity. I was touched.
‘Another message was from my best mate,’ Kolisi adds. ‘Eben Etzebeth and I have travelled a long road together at the Stormers and Boks. He was emotional watching me lead the team out at Ellis Park. Eben, of course, did the same a year earlier. He’s Bok captain No 59, and I’m No 61. We never dreamed it would turn out that way. Eben told me his only regret is that he didn’t get to run out with me and share in my big moment.’
The Boks will be without Vermeulen in the Rugby Championship, as the hard-hitting No 8 has committed to playing in Japan during this period. Fortunately, the leadership unit looks set to welcome back Etzebeth, Warren Whiteley and Malcolm Marx after the trio missed the June Tests with injuries. Kolisi will continue to play a key role, whether he continues as captain or not.
‘Working under Rassie in June was an eye-opener and I hope to have many more opportunities to play for him in future. When he first came to me about the chance to captain the Boks, he made it clear the job was for the three-Test series against England. No promises were made beyond that. I would never turn down the chance to lead the side again if it came my way. That said, I am enjoying my rugby and want to be a part of this Bok team and contribute in as many Tests as possible.’
Kolisi (27) could well play for the Boks at the next two World Cups. Simply representing the national side, and his franchise for that matter, won’t be enough for a man hungry for trophies.
‘It’s been a year of career highlights for me. Getting the Bok captaincy is right up there. Winning a series against England is not far off. Earlier this year, I won my 100th Super Rugby cap. It was a dream come true, playing 100 games for the Stormers, a team I looked up to when I was growing up.
‘I still have a lot I want to achieve as a Bok and Stormer, though. We didn’t have a great year at the Stormers, but I haven’t given up hope. There is potential at the franchise and I really want to win a title with the team.
‘The Boks are a different side in 2018. We’re playing a different style of rugby. We’re heading in the right direction. We’ve also got the 2019 World Cup in the back of our minds and in that sense there will be a push to try different things as this season progresses.’
This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.