Opinion / 1 September 2019, 12:20pm / clinton van der berg
It would be easy to underestimate the power of Siya Kolisi leading the Springboks to the World Cup.
It would also be naïve and ungracious given how much he has already brought to South African rugby.
It’s always dicey to elevate a single player in a team game, especially one as collegial and egalitarian as rugby, but exceptions must be made for those whose influence goes beyond the playing realm.
If his captaincy offers a potent symbol of emergent black talent - for years ignored and rebuffed by the old establishment - the greater story surrounds Kolisi’s quiet determination. Growing up in his grandmother’s home in Zwide, he went to bed on an empty stomach more times than he cares to remember. His was a life that offered little precedent for excellence.
But Kolisi took to rugby at Emsengeni Primary with relish, soon drawing the attention of the rugby community at large. A bursary at Grey High in Port Elizabeth followed, giving him a chance he almost certainly wouldn’t have had if he had remained in the township. Kolisi thrived.
By happen-stance, Rassie Erasmus was the first person to offer him a contract, soon after he graduated from school. Their paths have now come full circle, Erasmus having appointed Kolisi as South Africa’s first black Test captain in 2018.
The pair share a special bond, an important factor given the next few weeks that await. The portents are promising: the Springbok number six jersey has always had a certain cachet, not least because it was the number worn by Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar on SA rugby’s greatest day. Kolisi, too, will wear number six.
Also, Erasmus has assembled a team equal parts athletic and aggressive, ready to seize the moment. Seeing Kolisi smiling and glad-handing at Monday’s squad announcement, it was easy to forget that he had made it by the skin of his teeth. Injury almost scuppered his chances, but Erasmus hastened his return, insisting he get some rugby under his belt. Kolisi did, and the decision was made.
He isn’t a reluctant leader, but nor is he the type who gives Churchillian speeches and thumps his chest. He’s quiet and understated, happy to spread the load. Some have misinterpreted this as weakness, but the ability to delegate and to share the leadership is sensible and smart. Kolisi is still the guy who fronts up and makes the final call, but he’s also aware of the value of his senior players.More than that, he’s the glue that holds the squad together. His best pal among the squad is Eben Etzebeth, who is cut from an altogether different cloth.
Kolisi’s colour is irrelevant to him in the context of rugby. He’s well aware of the extra responsibility he carries for the black constituency, but he measures himself as a rugby player and his determination to be the best openside flanker there can be - for all South Africans.
It’s an important distinction because he’s worked harder than most for everything he has achieved. He wants no favours, no patronising.
Kolisi has emerged as one of SA sport’s favourite sons, having seamlessly transcended cultural and social barriers. Rugby still has a way to go to throw off the cloak of its recent past, but the Springboks couldn’t have a better talisman to help it get there.