Siya Kolisi’s humble nature as well as his ability to focus on what matters most will be crucial in a potentially historic week for South African rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI in Tokyo.
Kolisi is set to win his 50th Test cap against England in Yokohama this Saturday. If all goes to plan, the flank will become the first black African to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
On Monday, the SABC confirmed that it will broadcast the World Cup final live to the masses. It’s a significant move in the sense that millions of kids without access to pay TV may be inspired – just as Kolisi was in his youth – to take up rugby and become the next Bok captain.
A few weeks ago, I asked him if the responsibility of leading the Boks – and carrying the weight of a multicultural and vastly complicated nation on his shoulders – had changed him.
In some ways he seemed the same soft-spoken, mild-mannered kid that I first interviewed back in 2011. I was also aware, however, of how much he’d grown after assuming the captaincy at the Stormers and subsequently at the Boks.
‘So much has happened over the past couple of years,’ Kolisi told me. ‘I sometimes find it hard to remember what it was like back in 2011 when I was a guy just trying to break through at Western Province.
‘My friends remind me of who I am, though. Every time I go back to the township in Zwide they remind me. I won’t forget how far I’ve come and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way.’
The Kolisi story has become the South African story. Foreign journalists have flocked to Bok news conferences over the past seven weeks for an insight into a captain who has the full support of a diverse South African society.
‘We are representing the whole of South Africa,’ Kolisi said. ’Everyone in the country from every walk of life. We play each and every game to make everyone proud.
‘The kids who come from the same background as me may see me and believe that they can also do it. That’s the ultimate goal. We want those kids to believe they can make it.’
On Tuesday, veteran flank Francois Louw was asked about Kolisi’s impact as a leader. His response summed up the pressure on Kolisi and how the man from humble beginnings has managed to take an intimidating challenge in his stride.
Louw also highlighted Kolisi’s drive to share the load.
‘Siya has a lot of weight on his shoulders if you think about his role as captain with regard to the makeup of our country and where we’ve come from,’ Louw said. ‘I think that it’s a role that he’s grasped fully.
‘I will never forget the first thing he did when he became captain. He encouraged those around him to support him and to help him lead.
‘Being self-aware is a fantastic trait. You know what your strengths and weaknesses are and you surround yourself with people who may be wiser in some areas. When you do that you will succeed.
‘He’s led with great courage,’ Louw added. ‘He will rally the guys up when necessary. He’ll call on certain players to act on certain areas when necessary. Ultimately he surrounds himself with a leadership group that makes his own role easier.’
Former president Nelson Mandela wore the No 6 jersey in a show of support for captain Francois Pienaar and the Bok team ahead of the 1995 World Cup final. Kolisi, South Africa’s first black African captain, will wear the No 6 jersey in the World Cup final at the Yokohama Stadium on Saturday.
It’s says a lot for Kolisi’s character, as well as his reverence for ‘Tata Madiba’, that he is reluctant to accept the comparison. While he understands the significance of his role he remains focused on the task at hand.
If anything, Kolisi has looked to play down the hype over the course of the tournament. While he has encouraged all reporters to embrace the South African success story, he has reminded all and sundry that the Boks have an important job to do on the field.
Kolisi and his leadership group have proved themselves time and time again over the past two years. They were under pressure in the series against England last June and found a way to come out on top. They showed remarkable character to beat the All Blacks last year and end South Africa’s nine-year drought on New Zealand soil.
They’ve come through a couple of challenging matches over the past two weeks and have reason to believe that they can combat the England challenge. A World Cup final, however, is very different to a quarter-final or semi-final. The pressure will suffocate those of poor resolve.
Fortunately the Boks have some cool heads in Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard and several others. The early signs are that the group is in a calm and positive space and has what it takes to cope with the unique pressure they will experience on Saturday.
Photo: Marco Longari/Getty Images