Nobody, not even the player himself, saw the Kolisi ascension coming
CAPE TOWN - Rassie Erasmus is known for being a coach who likes to devise weird and wonderful strategies behind closed doors – like he did so many years ago when he sat on the roof of the Free State Stadium when in charge of the Cheetahs.
But it is perhaps a decision that didn’t require a laptop or whiteboard that may be considered his best ever call – making Siya Kolisi the Springbok captain in 2018.
In the first episode of the five-part series Chasing The Sun – which captures the Boks’ journey from the embarrassing low of the 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in New Zealand to 2019 Rugby World Cup glory – which aired on M-Net on Sunday night, the impact of Kolisi ascending to the captaincy was clear to see.
While getting the Boks back to winning ways after a disastrous two years under Allister Coetzee was an obvious goal for him, Erasmus also realised that he couldn’t continue ignoring the elephant in the room – the lack of transformation in the national team.
So he decided to be open and honest about the matter by discussing the situation with the players. “Winning and transformation. We are going to talk openly about it,” the then-Bok coach said on Chasing The Sun.
“How can you perform if you feel you are there as a quota, or the coach just has you there as a number, and the coach doesn’t trust you? You become robotic in your movements, you are not sure… It really just f***ks up your game.
“It was always about ‘Boys, how many (black) players must there be? No, no, no, don’t talk about that’. Why not talk about it? We then know there’s a target, so if the players don’t know that, how the hell are they going to accept it?”
Then he made the big call that his predecessor didn’t: Kolisi was appointed as the Bok skipper ahead of the 2018 series against England, something that would earn Erasmus much-needed trust from the black players in the squad.
“There were times where I felt I was just in the team because of my skin colour, and I hated it. There were times I was called names like quota. We had to have those conversations. It’s not going to change unless someone has the balls to say ‘Let’s speak about it,” Kolisi said.
“I just sat there and my whole skin colour changed (when Erasmus informed the squad). I was confused. I was in a meeting, but I wasn’t there. Where I’d come from, I’d never dream of being Springbok captain.”
Hooker Bongi Mbonambi added: “It was awesome, not just because he’s black… I look way past that. Just to give someone like Siya, who has been through so much, being as imperfect as he is – as we all are – a lot of people didn’t see that coming.”
Ensuring Kolisi became a successful captain went hand-in-hand with getting the Boks back on track in 2018, and the first episode of Chasing The Sun also documents why Erasmus decided to return to South Africa from Ireland.
The turning point for him was watching the Boks lose 38-3 to the Irish in Dublin in November 2017, where he had new head coach Jacques Nienaber beside him.
But once he got over the first hurdle of beating England in a three-match series, Erasmus knew that the only way he could really win over the public – and players, for that matter – was with a victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand, which duly happened in Wellington.
“There’s a difference between being upset and afraid. Showing fingers, and ‘rukking en plukking’ (pushing and shoving), and telling them that you are going to f**k them up, that upsets them,” Erasmus told the players before the match.
“Cleaning a guy out, and just looking him in the eye and laughing at him, that puts fear into him.”
Speaking on Chasing The Sun, Erasmus said about the 36-34 triumph: “The fans had to believe again. The only way you could do that, is by beating New Zealand in New Zealand. That was really planned – there were a lot of other things that weren’t planned, like losing to Argentina and Australia! Now I believed, and the players did too.”