The decision from Rassie Erasmus to install Siya Kolisi as the 61st Springbok captain – the first black African to skipper a Test side in Springbok history – has been widely acclaimed as an inspired choice.
It all started for Kolisi at Emsengeni Primary School in Zwide, where his love for rugby came from his father Fezakele. Eric Songwiqi, who coached Siya during the infancy of his career, takes up the tale.
“I met Siya when he was a boy and I could already see he had the right attitude and leadership qualities,” Songwiqi tells Sport24. “Knowing that he will become the first black African to captain the Springboks in a Test is an exuberant moment. It proves hard work, discipline and dedication pays.”
Songwiqi says he is very proud of the heights Kolisi has scaled and stresses that the 26-year-old flank’s achievements haven’t come as a surprise to him because he spotted his potential way back. He feels Siya’s ascension to Test captaincy will elevate interest in rugby among the black community.
“I appreciate what Siya is doing in ploughing back to the community. You can see the strides the school and his club, African Bombers, is making…He’s softly-spoken and lets his actions talk loudest.”
Hailing from Zwide township in the Eastern Cape, Kolisi has navigated a long and winding path to reach the pinnacle of the oval game. His transformation from shy boy, asking for Schalk Burger’s autograph, to Springbok captain has been breathtaking to behold. The Springbok team was named on Saturday evening and on the Sunday morning, when the squad assembled in Johannesburg, Kolisi found out that he would lead South Africa into battle against England through the three-Test series.
When Siya tried to break the news that he had been named Springbok captain to his wife, Rachel, she was on the way to the hospital with their daughter, Keziah, who had taken ill. He phoned Rachel in the afternoon, annoyed that she hadn’t returned his message earlier that morning. After explaining to Siya that she had been taking care of their sick child, he broke the news: “I’m captain”, he said. “Of what?” she asked, at first not realising the significance of what Siya was trying to relay.
“The fact that he is Springbok captain is massive for us as a family. I always knew he was destined for greatness and to see it all come to this point is exciting,” Rachel tells Sport24 in an exclusive. “If I’m honest, it’s quite nerve-wracking as well because, as we have seen over the past couple of years, the amount of pressure on the Springboks is hectic. I’m happy but also aware of how hectic it can get.”
Rachel and Siya met at a young age and she reveals that he has done a complete 180 in terms of his transformation as a man. She says the only thing that has remained a constant is Siya’s heart of gold.
“He has grown so much as a person and has taken the responsibility in and outside of rugby very seriously,” she continues. “The responsibilities he has at home, coupled with the accountability to his teams and the country is massive, but he is an amazing father, leader and is a great role model.”
Rachel doesn’t see life as the wife of Bok captain as being any different to her current existence and laughs off suggestions that she is now the first lady of rugby. “I’m just here to support Siya and pray for him,” she says. “For him, the pressure that comes with national captaincy is really going to be the difference. However, Siya was already feeling pressured because he wasn’t having the best season form-wise. After the Lions game, and before the national squad was named, Siya said to me in the car, all he cares about is making the Springboks and having an opportunity to prove himself again.”
Former Springbok captain Corné Krige, who skippered the men in green and gold on 18 occasions, agrees that pressure is magnified when you become national captain but he’s backing Kolisi to shine.
“It’s a massive honour to captain your country. You become part of an elite club, which is very special,” Krige says. However, with the captaincy comes a huge responsibility and plenty of pressure. Some people can handle that pressure and others can’t. I expect Siya to step up to the plate and lift his game for the Springbok matches because he is the type of player that relishes the big moments.”
By his own high standards, Kolisi hasn’t hit his best form this season but the phrase: ‘Form is temporary and class is permanent’ is fitting. Krige isn’t overly concerned by Kolisi’s dip in form for the Stormers, in what has been a challenging Super Rugby campaign, and describes him as a “class player”. He feels it’s only a matter of time before the 28-Test Bok hits his straps and is on fire again.
Krige, like Kolisi, was a man of action rather than many words. He too possessed an indomitable spirit and warrior-like energy when he took to the battle field. Some parallels can be drawn between their playing and leadership styles. However, Krige feels Kolisi is a “better player” than he once was.
The No 6 jersey is an iconic one in Springbok rugby folklore. It has been worn by former Springbok captains Francois Pienaar, Krige and Burger but arguably most famously by late statesman Nelson Mandela at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. The significance of Kolisi now donning that jersey and captaining his country is not lost on Krige, with South Africa still dealing with transformation issues.
“The No 6 Springbok jersey is very special. Some great guys have worn it and it’s fantastic that Siya is its latest custodian. If you look at his background (Siya was raised by his grandmother after his mother’s passing) and where he has come from, captaining the Boks is a massive achievement for him. The obstacles he had to overcome at a young age speak to his attitude in life and his personality. Where you start doesn’t determine where you end up. Siya is a great example of that.”