Kolisi might be the man in possession when it comes to the Springbok captaincy, but in several weeks he is expected to vie with Warren Whiteley for the post. Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit may enter the conversation too.
Whiteley’s claims are made on his appointment to the captaincy in 2017, admittedly under Allister Coetzee. When Whiteley was injured, the general view was that Coetzee would make Kolisi captain, but it never happened. Etzebeth got the job.
Coetzee was lashed for not appointing Kolisi, but what few know is that the decision originated within the team – the players themselves opted for Etzebeth, who happens to be tight with Kolisi. Their families even holiday together.
By common consensus, Whiteley is reckoned to be the best of SA’s Super Rugby captains. He is urbane, bright and plays on the front foot; qualities you always seek in a leader. He never fails to impress.
Kolisi captains the Stormers, but it hasn’t always been a happy ride, Kolisi’s form tending to mirror the general form of his team.
However, when Kolisi was thrust into the captaincy for the mid-year internationals against England, he rose to the occasion. Coach Rassie Erasmus made the point that the appointment had nothing to do with race and everything to do with rugby, but nonetheless it became a uniquely South African story.
As the Springboks’ first black Test captain, Kolisi was only ever going to be the big story.
How he responded was critical, and he performed his duties with customary class. His playing form was much improved and off the field he was dapper, sincere and warm-hearted. He passed every test.
It was telling, too, how SA’s black populace responded to his ascension to the big job. The audience perked up and encouraged him. Some even remarked that for the first time they felt they belonged. In the context of South Africa and its angst-ridden history, this was a massive watershed. This was rugby’s Rubicon moment.
Which way will Erasmus go?
Given that Kolisi hasn’t put a foot wrong, it would be difficult to overlook him for the top job again. It’s far easier to dislodge a captain who has overseen a shambles, far harder to do so when he has a series win to his credit.
Whiteley is no fool. He knows that he’ll always be in the mix, but the greater good will be served by retaining Kolisi. Whiteley is not the sort of bloke who will beat himself up or rage against the system if he is overlooked.
Besides, the Springbok team traditionally has divisional leaders who operate informally under the captain, so someone like Handre Pollard will have oversight of the backline and Etzebeth will be responsible for keeping the tight forwards in check. Indeed, Springbok captains hardly ever act entirely alone; they defer to these lieutenants, ensuring decision-making is a collaborative affair.
Good captains aren’t insecure and if Kolisi keeps the job, he is likely to lean heavily on Whiteley, the probable number eight, as he did with Duane Vermeulen in June. Vermeulen himself had designs on the captaincy, but when he didn’t get it he happily offered Kolisi his full support.
A further reason to keep things as they are is because Erasmus and Kolisi have forged a strong relationship that goes back to Erasmus’ days at the Stormers. It was a relationship that strengthened in June when trust developed between the two. The chemistry is proven.
With just 15 matches to go until the World Cup, now is not the time for chopping and changing. Even if things go badly in the Rugby Championship, the last thing a team needs is uncertainty and indecision. Erasmus has plumped for Kolisi once.
As the man in the possession, as the totem for South Africa, Kolisi must again be handed the responsibility.