Siya Kolisi is captaining a diverse Stormers side that has embraced a more attacking game plan, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Siya Kolisi enjoys talking about his roots, his family, his team, and his country.
His coaches and teammates describe him as usually a man of few words; a silent type who prefers to make his statements on the pitch. Yet, when Kolisi speaks passionately about the people and issues closest to his heart and then explains how everything is connected, you begin to understand why he has been tasked with leading the Stormers in 2017.
Kolisi was named Stormers captain in the lead-up to the season opener against the Bulls in Cape Town; a clash steeped in tradition and a crucial fixture in the context of the Africa 1 conference. With regular skipper Juan de Jongh out of action until May, the Stormers needed someone with gravitas to fill the void. Coach Robbie Fleck felt Kolisi had the experience and the temperament for the job.
The decision was met with approval across the country.
Kolisi has been a popular national figure ever since he produced a Man of the Match performance in his Test debut against Scotland in 2013. The fact he was the first black African to wear the captain’s armband at the Stormers was also hailed as significant.
The Stormers went on to hammer the Bulls 37-24 at Newlands. Afterwards, Fleck delivered a measured assessment of Kolisi’s leadership abilities. It was encouraging to think that, after leading the Stormers to a 13-point victory against the Cape side’s arch-rivals, he had room for improvement.
Kolisi reveals the weeks leading up to the north-south derby were tough. The loss of De Jongh warranted a reshuffle in the backline and a restructure of the leadership core. But when Fleck came to Kolisi with the offer of the captaincy, he also came with a comforting message: Be yourself.
‘It was a huge moment for me,’ Kolisi tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I realised what the coach was asking in terms of the responsibility of the position. He’s been honest with me. He doesn’t want me to change. He’s told me that I’ve been made captain because of the person I am. That gives me confidence.
‘At the same time, I put pressure on myself to perform as a player and leader. I’ve had to grow up a lot since becoming a husband and father in the past year. I see my role at home as similar to that in the team. I have to step up, I have to be a leader. More than anything, I have to be myself, or rather the best version of myself. I don’t think you can separate your on- and off-field responsibilities. You have to live that way every day.’
Kolisi and his partner Rachel tied the knot last August. The couple live with their son Nicholas (1), as well as Kolisi’s half-siblings Liyema (14) and Liphelo (9), whom he has adopted. While 2016 marked a bright and beautiful beginning for this new family, Rachel and the kids appreciate what the Stormers captaincy signifies in Kolisi’s incredible life story.
‘Everyone was thrilled with the news; even my sister, who isn’t really into rugby,’ Kolisi says with a laugh. ‘It’s a huge moment, not only for me but for my entire family, especially those in the Eastern Cape.
‘I owe a lot to my family. When I was growing up in Zwide, they taught me to be happy in the tough times and to embrace life’s challenges with a smile on your face. I guess I was really fortunate to have that kind of support. I was lucky to have rugby as an outlet.’
Kolisi remembers his early days on the dusty streets of the township outside Port Elizabeth. As he retells his story, he makes it clear he wants to inspire others in disadvantaged communities who dream about playing sport for a living.
‘My father and my uncles were massive rugby fans, so I was exposed to that love for the game at an early age. Then I began to play at the African Bombers, the local club in Zwide. That was my escape from township life.
‘None of my friends were into sport and there were a lot of temptations. I had a burning love for rugby and that is why I played it as much as I could. Later, when I was at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, I was playing three or four games on a Saturday. My teachers and coaches didn’t know – and probably still don’t know – that I would play a school match and then head to the club to play for the thirds, seconds, and firsts. I was 15 at the time. I was playing against fully grown men in club rugby. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just trying to explain that when it came to rugby I couldn’t get enough of it. At that stage, I didn’t know if I could play for the Stormers or the Springboks. What I did know was I wanted to make a life out of rugby.
‘That can serve as a lesson to others who come from humble beginnings. Whoever you are, whatever your colour or your situation, your past doesn’t determine your future. If you keep pushing for what you want, you will get it. That is true in life as well as sport.
‘There will be tough times, but you have to use those challenges to drive you forward,’ Kolisi continues. ‘I grew up in the townships so I realise it’s not easy. There are people who don’t have money for food or transport or whatever, and they may think that this kind of opportunity to play sport will never come their way. But if you know what you want and you work towards that goal, you will reap the rewards.’
When Kolisi was recruited by Western Province Rugby, he had modest ambitions of representing his father’s favourite provincial team. Those early days in the at-times daunting city of Cape Town were made easier by teammates such as Eben Etzebeth and Frans Malherbe, players who have since become members of the Stormers’ leadership group.
‘Eben and I have been big mates since I first arrived in Cape Town. We always spoke about running out at Newlands one day together in the colours of the Stormers. That was the dream. Now we’re the captain and vice-captain of the Stormers.’
Some have described Kolisi’s elevation to the captaincy as a significant moment for transformation in Western Cape and South African rugby. Kolisi acknowledges this in the context of his rags-to-rugby-riches story, a narrative that will be used to inspire future generations of players. He is also keen to point out how the Stormers are leading the way in diversity. Regardless of results, the Stormers are a South African success story.
‘We’re the most diverse union in South Africa,’ he says with pride. ‘We realise that many of us come from different backgrounds, and we see it as an advantage. We have embraced each others’ differences and have learned to take an interest in each other’s cultures. This has brought us closer as a group of friends and made us stronger as a team.
‘For example, many of us in the team are Christian while Nizaam Carr is Muslim. Nizaam has taken us to mosque a few times to show us his culture. I’ve taken the team to Mzoli’s in Gugulethu for a chow because that is something I enjoy and I want to share it with them. Some of the other guys have had us over to their farms, and so on. All in all, it’s a happy culture and a good indicator of where South African rugby is going.’
The Stormers have also attempted to alter perceptions about South African rugby.
In the wake of their five-try display against the Bulls at Newlands, former Bok coach Nick Mallett praised the Cape franchise for pursuing a brand of play similar to that of the New Zealand teams.
‘Robbie wanted us to change the way we played, and we saw signs of the new game in that opener against the Bulls,’ says Kolisi. ‘We realise that we can’t run everything and that there will be times where we will have to be smart and more tactical. We know that physicality will always be important, but so too will skill.
‘The bottom line is we can’t be afraid to go out there and try things. We can’t allow fear of failure to control us. We want to play an exciting brand of rugby for our fans at Newlands. There will be tough times, I’m sure, but we will strive to be positive.’
KOLISI'S BOK TEST BREAKDOWN
vs Scotland: sub – 75 min
vs Samoa: sub – 36 min
vs Argentina: sub – 14 min
vs Argentina: sub –12 min
vs Australia: sub – 9 min
vs New Zealand: sub – 6 min
vs Australia: sub – 20 min
vs New Zealand: sub – 40 min
vs Wales: sub – 14 min
vs France: sub – 5 min
vs Argentina: sub – 18 min
vs Japan: sub – 23 min
vs Samoa: sub – 13 min
vs Ireland: start – 80 min
vs Ireland: start – 68 min
vs Ireland: start – 60 min
Minutes played: 493
– This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine