Johannesburg - You would have to walk a far way to find a Springbok fan who wasn’t impressed by Siya Kolisi’s man of the match performance against France in Durban on Saturday, but in reality the Stormers captain has been building up to this the entire year.
According to the SuperSport website, Kolisi’s exceptional performance against the French not only has silenced his critics, but has come at a time that Springbok rugby desperately needs it.
And it has come through a journey of self-actualisation and learning to enjoy his rugby again, rather than worry about what and where he needs to play, and what others think about it.
It isn’t unfair to say that many Bok fans were a bit disappointed when Jaco Kriel wasn’t selected for the role Kolisi fulfils in the number six jersey.
And the reason is easy, because in his 17 previous tests he never had really settled into his place. Debates about his role as a six or seven raged, with former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer believing he needed to convert to an opensider, while Kolisi’s game remains more of a hybrid between the backrow positions.
And considering he missed nine of the 12 Springbok tests in 2016, Kolisi’s change of heart, and change of fortunes came when he was elevated to the leadership position at the Stormers, and where he found his calling in being one of the team’s leaders.
There is no doubt that the change contributed to his game, which has been exceptional in 2017. But until Saturday Kolisi hadn’t delivered a performance quite like that one in the Green and Gold jersey. The potential was always there, but finally it was a performance that even he admitted “that was by far the best I’ve felt after a game. Since my first game, this is the best I’ve felt after a game in a Springbok jersey.”
Kolisi’s story is a special one, it is one of hope and overcoming obstacles, one of not being downed by the circumstances around you and one of responsibility. Now being given that responsibility this year has moulded and changed him and like every other step in his life, Kolisi has stepped up to the challenge.
Asked about his struggle to find his place in the team, Kolisi was frank in his answer, and showed why he is so highly rated by both his coaches and team-mates in a team environment.
“I just love rugby, I used to worry about it a lot, where I play. And I didn’t play that well because of it,” Kolisi admitted.
“But now I seriously don’t worry about where I play. There are a lot of guys who would love to have this opportunity and would grab it with both hands, so if I have to play seven or eight, I’ll play there. We’ve created a really good culture amongst each other as players and we would do anything to make sure the team does well. The team comes first and my things will come after that.”
Despite the challenge of a changed French team and chirps that the Boks had beaten a weakened French side, the loose trio worked harder than before, and underlining the new attitude in the team, Kolisi added that there was never any doubt the team would be up for the challenge they were presented with. The team never focused on a different French outfit but rather on building on the Loftus victory.
“It wasn’t a focus for us but the coaches give us a lot of freedom and responsibility, you know. They say if you feel it you must go for it. They give us the opportunity to make choices in the game,” he adds.
“Our main focus was to have guys on our feet, to beat them for every ball. They’re a big, heavy pack. We didn’t want them to get momentum on us, we wanted to get them with doubles (tackles) and when the opportunity was there we jumped in.
“It is good (to get the win), but for us the focus has been purely on us. We wanted to be sure we fixed all the mistakes from last week and come into this game strong.
“We knew they made a lot of changes, but our mind-set didn’t change, we stuck to what we wanted to do, our systems and what we wanted to correct in the game. Our game plan didn’t change much, it was more the attitude. It is always there when you play for the Springboks. We knew the challenge was coming, but we prepared for it and we made sure that we did what we wanted to do in the game, and didn’t focus too much on them.”
The new team culture, which has been spoken about repeatedly by this group of players, is something that inspires Kolisi. As one of the team’s senior players, a leader on and off the field, and with a renewed desire and burning ambition, he seems to have found his place in the Springboks.
And while the victory was something magical for the team, Kolisi highlights the defensive period early in the second half where the team was camped on their own line for almost 15 minutes, but didn’t let a French player through to score. This moment was something that was a highlight, a time that the team showed they weren’t just team-mates, but brothers in arms.
“For me the highlight is always defence, tackle and tackle. We got bogged down there in our own half for a few minutes and like I said we really are getting to know each other as people and we are starting to care a lot more about each other. “We’re building our own culture here in the team as players. We’ve started something new and it shows. It’s easy to show someone you care for them when things are going tough, and you know your mate is there with you.
“It’s so much easier to give your best for someone you care about. Especially the stuff we do off the field, it all carries through onto the field as well.”
Kolisi knows the old rugby adage that you’re only as good as your last game and will need to back this renewed energy and passion up this weekend in Johannesburg and then again in the Rugby Championship.
But he also knows he is comfortable in his role now, and has found his inspiration. And more than all is enjoying his rugby again.
The difference of the 2017 Boks in terms of passion, intensity and culture is clear when compared to 2016. And Kolisi’s performance is a reminder of the talent that is in this country and what it can achieve when empowered.