Siya Kolisi recently passed his sternest examination as Springbok captain with flying colours, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the lead-up to the all-important second Test between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions, Kolisi faced what was self-admittedly his most challenging week as a captain.
For a player who has had to deal with the responsibility of becoming South Africa’s first black Test captain, and who led the team during several high-intensity Test weeks on the way to World Cup glory in 2019, such an admission was telling.
Yet, it also wasn’t all that surprising in the context of what Kolisi had to contend with during, and after, the first Test, which sparked an off-field controversy that reverberated through the rugby establishment.
After the Boks’ opening defeat, South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus took to social media, and then fronted up at a media conference, to detail some of the frustrations about officiating inconsistencies and World Rugby’s referee review process.
That was just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Just 48 hours before the second Test, an unprecedented video came to light, with Erasmus sitting front and centre as he brutally exposed and analysed a host of refereeing discrepancies, including instances where he felt officials showed the South Africans a lack of respect.
Specifically, he pinpointed clips where he suggested referee Nic Berry laughed off legitimate questions from Kolisi, in stark contrast to the freedom counterpart Alun Wyn Jones seemed to enjoy in his dealings with the officials.
“Siya couldn’t get a chance. It was like Alun Wyn was on a date with Nic Berry,” former Bok captain John Smit quipped after the game.
On the eve of the second Test, Kolisi opened up about the subject, and he did so with a self-assured air of authority that left no question about how much the 30-year-old has evolved as a leader.
“I didn’t feel respected. I didn’t feel I was given a fair opportunity,” Kolisi stated at the captain’s run press conference. And when later asked to substantiate his claims and speak about how exactly he wasn’t shown respect, he continued: “Have you watched the video?
“Watch the video and we can speak about it … I didn’t feel I had the same access to the referee and there’s proof if you watch the game again, you will definitely be able to see for yourself,” he added emphatically.
In another pre-match interview, Kolisi hinted that this sort of refereeing reaction was not the first of its kind, but admitted it had led to self-doubt when it came to his approach in talking to officials.
In totality, it was surely an unwanted distraction for him at a time when the Springboks were looking to hone their focus on rebounding in the second Test. Yet, Kolisi turned up at the Cape Town Stadium with a look of utter determination in his eye and a fighting spirit coursing through his veins.
When the final whistle blew, he had inspired the Springboks to a stunning 27-9 comeback victory, having produced arguably one of his most influential performances in a green and gold jersey. Immediately afterwards, he offered another raw and powerful interview about what it meant to him.
“That was special, it was exactly what we needed. It’s been a tough week for us as a group, but also for me personally as a leader, it’s the toughest week I’ve ever had to face with everything going on.
“But I’m grateful for the management and coaches we have, who made us focus on the mistakes we made, and what we could control [to correct that]… I’m grateful for the other leaders in the group, who took charge. That’s how I know us as a team, we don’t make excuses, we focus on what we need to do on the field, and that’s exactly what we did.”
When all was said and done, the match statistics revealed Kolisi’s on-field impact, particularly off the ball. Playing 73 minutes, the flank made the most defensive ruck hits of any Springbok player (13) and the joint-second-most overall breakdown hits (24).
Of course, he also completed the most influential tackle of the match when he remarkably managed to get an arm under Lions centre Robbie Henshaw to prevent him from scoring in the latter stages of the first half. Overall, the captain made a total of 13 tackles with a 100% success rate. In addition, he completed 22 metres and three carries.
With all this in mind, let’s rewind to the first half of the year as Kolisi completed a decisive career move in trading the Stormers for the Sharks, while desperately searching to rediscover his best form and fitness after a stop-start 2020.
Speaking before the Sharks’ Rainbow Cup match against the Lions in May, he was scathingly candid in his self-appraisal.
“Every game I play now counts. If I’m honest, I’m not yet where I need to be. If my performances aren’t good enough, I know for a fact I won’t be chosen for the Springboks … Before the most recent two games I’ve played for the Sharks, the last genuinely good game I played was the World Cup final. Since then I haven’t really performed as well as I could have.
“For me to already be thinking about the Lions would be madness, despite how much I really want to be there. That’s why I’m selfish enough to say I’m going to focus on myself and I know I can perform better for my team.”
Some criticism and question marks over Kolisi’s form continued to hang over him as he headed into the Springboks pre-Lions tour camp and while he banked some important game time in the first Test against Georgia, no one could have predicted what would come next.
What started out as a potentially limited Covid-19 cluster turned into an outbreak that spread like wildfire through the Bok camp, resulting in the cancellation of the second warm-up game against Georgia, while sending numerous Springbok players into periods of isolation.
Kolisi tested positive and although asymptomatic, he went into a lockdown period of 10 days. During this time of isolation, he watched on from his hotel room as a period of political unrest ravaged South Africa as looting and protest action brought KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to their knees.
Amid the Covid outbreak, and the uncertainty created by the unrest, many wondered if the Lions tour would be able to proceed at all.
Again, as the leader of South Africa’s beloved national side, Kolisi acknowledged the Boks would head into the Lions series with a greater cause on their minds.
“If we are able to put a smile on peoples’ faces and, for a moment in time, let everybody else put their problems aside when we win, they feel like they win, too, that whatever our difficult situation is we are always able to pull together.
“We’ve got families, we’ve got friends, we’ve got people who have suffered during this time. We want to make sure that while we have the privilege to do what we do, we give it our ultimate best.”
What cannot be in any doubt is the fact Kolisi, over the past few months, has faced his sternest examination as a captain, player and in some sense, also as a sporting statesman. He has passed this test with flying colors.
There is no longer even a semblance of doubt about his credentials as the Springboks’ leader. Indeed, a sign of any great leader is the humility to accept when you need help, and at times to defer duties to other lieutenants who have different areas of expertise.
It’s this willingness to share leadership responsibilities that has always set Kolisi apart as a captain, and which is a major strength rather than a sign of any weakness.
There is nothing to suggest he won’t lead the Springboks through to the next World Cup, fitness and form permitting. And by the time Kolisi eventually hangs up his boots, there is every chance he will be remembered as one of the Boks’ all-time great captains.
Perhaps even with the potential – all things considered on and off the field – to become the greatest of them all.