Smit: Kolisi is like a peaceful warrior

Former Springbok skipper John Smit has hailed the leadership evolution of Siya Kolisi and labelled his second-Test performance against the British & Irish Lions as a ‘colossal captain’s innings’, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Prior to the start of the series between the Springboks and Lions, Kolisi revealed how highly he valued the advice of former players such as Smit as he prepared to lead the team against the touring team from the northern hemisphere.

At the time, though, Kolisi could never have foreseen the challenges he would face as captain, which first included a 10-day period where he was forced into isolation on the eve of the Test series after testing positive for Covid-19.

Following the Boks’ defeat to the Lions in the opening match, Kolisi admitted he then faced his toughest Test week as a captain, with an officiating controversy leaving him with some self-admitted doubts over his dealings with referees.

Just prior to last weekend’s rematch against the Lions, Kolisi had openly stated that he supported Rassie Erasmus’ claims that he felt disrespected by the officiating team during the first Test.

It was a unique challenge to contend with, especially as the Springbok captain also sought to keep his focus – and that of the team – firmly centred on rebounding in the second Test of the series.

In an exclusive interview with this week, Smit – who led the Boks to victory in the 2009 series against the Lions – revealed some of the conversations he had with Kolisi during this time.

“He called me on the Sunday after the first Test, and he was frustrated. The thing is with captaincy, no matter who you are, what you are, you are under pressure all the time. You’re either winning or you’re in trouble. That’s how captaincy works in this country. He was up against it from that perspective, and he was also up against an experienced captain who has been around the block in Alun Wyn Jones.

“Siya didn’t get enough time [to interact with referee Nic Berry] because Alun Wyn controlled that space. And I said to Siya, ‘you’ve got to stamp your authority in a nice way and a respectful way in the beginning, but if it doesn’t happen, then you’ve got to get more forceful and ask questions’.

“We didn’t talk about his game but he was phenomenal. Siya’s interesting because he’s like a peaceful warrior. When he came out of the tunnel in the second Test, he was quite jovial and singing. He was in a relaxed space and I thought he was in the right head space.

“I don’t think that was the case in the first Test, and I can relate, because I remember the nerves and the anxiety was just so much for me as well [in 2009]. And he had that, which is normal. But in the second Test, he must’ve thought it’s do-or-die and he had a captain’s innings like you’ve never seen before. It was exactly what the Bok team needed.

“They needed their leader to go out there and make the try-saving tackle and hit the guys hard and make linebreaks and do everything. And he was everywhere. It was a colossal performance, if not man-of-the-match stuff. That’s exactly why everyone gravitates towards Siya.

“After the first Test he was bummed and broken. And he wanted to fix that, and he wanted to start that revival himself. And he did, it was incredible.”

Smit added that such experiences are all part of the learning curve for Kolisi as a captain.

“Every captain’s different. Siya’s such a respectful, humble guy and that’s not always the best trait to have as a captain. Sometimes you’ve got to be quite forceful and you’ve got to be a bit pushy at times. But it’s not in his nature. I think sometimes referees will not take that into consideration and because he’s so easy going and he’s not forceful, they deal with the ones that are difficult and keep them busy.

“So it’s important for referees to understand that his culture, and his nature, and his character, is one of respect. He respects everyone. He’s a super nice guy and so he’s quite easy to palm off if there’s someone else that is tapping your shoulder every two minutes. It’s a tough one because it’s almost like you’re being punished for being a good guy.”

Previously, Kolisi has shared how grateful he is that Smit has such an open-door policy, with the Springboks’ most-capped captain more than happy for him to phone at any time.

Smit said it was a ‘mentorship role’ he enjoyed.

“I’ve been chatting with Siya for a couple of years now. It’s purely a case of I’m there whenever he needs me. If he’s feeling nervous or if there’s pressure and he wants to bounce things off me, I’ve said to him that he can call me whenever. Our challenges are similar but also different. I understand the pressure he’s under but he’s got very different challenges to the challenges I had when I was the captain.

“I can’t answer all his questions and he knows there are certain things that I can’t really help him with. It can get lonely there as a captain. There’s not a lot of people who completely understand the fact that you’re either everyone’s hero or you’re a villain. You’re either the goodie or the baddie, there’s nothing in between. So when it gets lonely and the pressure is on, it’s quite nice to give someone a call and bounce things off them.”

Photo: Steve Haag Sports

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Craig Lewis