Kolisi’s at sixes and sevens

The sooner Siya Kolisi settles at openside flank, the better for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Siya Kolisi’s playing stats make for interesting reading. Sixty caps after four seasons with the Stormers. Thirteen Tests after two years with the Springboks. They  are relatively impressive stats for a 24-year-old professional rugby player. They are exceptional numbers for a kid who began his life in a township outside Port Elizabeth.

That said, nobody can say with confidence that Kolisi will go on to become a great. At least not yet. A closer analysis of those same numbers reveals why he still has a lot to prove at Super Rugby and Test levels. How he fares in 2016, and indeed how he is managed by the coaching teams, will determine whether he soars or stagnates in the years to come.

In 2012, then Stormers coach Allister Coetzee told SA Rugby magazine Kolisi was something special. Coetzee said Kolisi would receive opportunities in each of the back-row positions with the aim of developing the player’s all-round skills.

Kolisi played exclusively at blindside flank for Western Province during the 2011 Currie Cup. He was then asked to play openside when Schalk Burger sustained a season-ending injury in the first game of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign. By the end of the 2012 season, Coetzee declared himself satisfied with Kolisi’s progress as a loose forward who could give the squad options.

Unfortunately, the Stormers continued to regard Kolisi as a utility player in the subsequent three seasons. Between 2012 and 2015, he started 30 games at openside, 18 at blindside, and one at No 8. In 2014 and 2015, 17 of his 21 Super Rugby starts were at blindside. If the Stormers had a master plan for shaping Kolisi into a specialist, it was not clear.

This much was intimated by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer when he selected Kolisi for the first time in 2013. Meyer regarded Kolisi and the Sharks’ Marcell Coetzee as special projects. Neither player fell into the category of ball-winning openside or ground-gaining blindside. Meyer and his management team believed that, in time, Kolisi would develop into a useful fetcher. His size (1.86m and 99kg) also factored into the decision.

There is a perception that Bok coaches are preoccupied with size, and that the obsession is hampering the development of certain players as well as the performance of the national team. This may be true in some instances, as when coaches like Meyer, Peter de Villiers and Jake White opted for hulking ball-carriers at No 6 at the expense of smaller, yet more skilled breakdown exponents. 

In the past, other Test teams have got away with starting a lighter, shorter player at openside flank. However, most have, as recent trends indicate (see sidebar), opted to field a larger man at blindside.

This seems a non-negotiable. While the man in the blindside position needs to have pace and possess the required handling skills, these qualities are secondary to the ability to dominate at the gainline. A blindside needs to keep his team on the front foot, and most importantly, the necessary size and power to keep his team going forward.

In 2012, Coetzee spoke of Kolisi as an important player for South African rugby. Those words took on a new meaning in late 2014 when Saru announced its Strategic Transformation Plan.

In short, Saru intends to field a national side that is 50/50 in terms of demographic representation at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. For this goal to be realised, more black players need to be blooded over the next four years. The black players who are already in the system, especially those with Test experience, will be crucial.

But will Kolisi travel to the 2019 World Cup as a specialist, or as a utility player who adds value from the bench? Will he suffer the same fate he did in 2015, when he featured in two matches for a total game time tally of just 36 minutes?

In 2015, blindside flank Willem Alberts was injured on the eve of the Boks’ opening World Cup match. Most felt that Kolisi, the man initially listed in the 23, would be promoted to start. As it was, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit was pushed straight into the team as the starting blindside because Meyer felt the larger player was more suited to the role. It spoke volumes for Meyer’s confidence, or lack thereof, in Kolisi as a starting No 7.

Should Kolisi have started against Japan, and should he ever start at blindside? He has proved an industrious player at Super Rugby level, but by no means a world-beater. By international standards (see sidebar on previous page), he doesn’t measure up to other blindside flankers. When coaches make peace with the fact that Kolisi is never going to be a blindside who dominates the collisions at Test level, they can begin to channel their energy towards transforming him into a bona fide openside.

This magazine understands that plans are in place to achieve the exact opposite. The next regime of Bok coaches view Kolisi’s utility value as a plus for any squad.

It would be a real shame if, in four years’ time, people remain undecided. By then, Kolisi may have racked up twice as many Super Rugby caps. He may be approaching 40 or 50 Tests, but how many of those will he have started? How many minutes would he have played? And how much closer will he be to discovering his true identity as a player?

The answer to these questions will depend on how Kolisi is used and how he performs over the next few years. The 2016 season will be especially significant, as he looks to make a statement before the Bok squad for the June Tests is selected. One would hope that he is not pushed to play blindside, a position he has shown little aptitude for at Test level. It would be better if he were encouraged to develop as an openside.

The latter would require a big investment by the coaches. However, the possible rewards for the Stormers, the Boks, and even Kolisi himself suggest the risk is well worth it.

– This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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