Siya Kolisi: South Africa′s unlikely captain and inspirational leader | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 31.10.2019
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Siya Kolisi: South Africa's unlikely captain and inspirational leader

South Africa go into Saturday's World Cup final against England as underdogs. With Siya Kolisi captaining the Springboks, victory in Yokohama would eclipse any other and usher in a new era for South African rugby.

It was the final economy flight of the day from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Passengers were lined up waiting to board, only for an announcement of a delay to trigger discontented muttering. Suddenly, hushed whispers rippled through the crowd when a hulking, smiling man joined the back of the queue. Weariness was replaced by excitement as the man in question was a South African rugby star. The mostly white passengers were wide-eyed as they edged closer to him for their selfies. The passengers had forgotten all about the delay.

That man was Siya Kolisi, the first black man to captain South Africa's rugby team. On Saturday, the flanker will carry the hopes of millions of sports-crazed South Africans when he skippers the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup final against England in Japan. Unlike other sports captains, Kolisi also knows that if he can fulfil his dream of hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy aloft, it could lift the country like no other victory in the Springboks' storied, and controversial, existence.  

"I've seen what it has done for the country before. I am old enough to remember the 2007 World Cup and I know what it would do now," he said.  

Rugby WM 2019 Team Südafrika (Getty Images/H. Peters)

Siya Kolisi and the Springboks salute their fans after beating Japan in the quarter finals.

It is hard to overstate how massive Saturday's game is for South Africans. In a country plagued by horrendous gender-based violence, unfathomable inequality, sky-high unemployment and disillusionment with the political status quo 24 years after the end of apartheid, sport and the country's athletes have provided an escape and something to rally around. Be it hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Wade van Niekerk's Gold at the Rio Olympics, Caster Semenya's ascent to stardom, or the cricket team's incredible One Day International win over Australia in 2006.

But rugby is different, this Rugby World Cup team is different, and there is no better man to rally around than Kolisi. 

South Africa's elite

South Africa's relationship with international rugby has never been smooth. The team was banned from participating in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups due to the country's racist apartheid policies. For most of the Springboks' history, black rugby players were excluded from playing for the national team because of their ethnicity.

Seared into many South African's sports fans mind will always be then-President Nelson Mandela wearing captain Francois Pienaar's number 6 shirt, and Pienaar himself clutching the 1995 World Cup. It was an iconic moment of reconciliation (and PR) that the ‘new' South Africa desperately needed at the time.

However, South African rugby still was considered a white sport, played by products of South Africa's elite, overwhelmingly white school system. Transformation has been slow, and manifested itself in ever-present, thorny, heated debate that very quickly drives to the heart of deeper lying problems in South African society.

Südafrika Nelson Mandela & Francois Pienaar (Getty Images/AFP/J.P. Muller)

An iconic moment: President Nelson Mandela congratulates Pienaar on leading the Boks to victory in 1995.

Chester Williams was South Africa's only black player in the 1995 final. The 2007 world champions had just two non-white players in JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana. Many rugby-mad South Africans of color support New Zealand's All Blacks at international tournaments out of protest, saying the Springbok rugby team is not representative of the country – and with good reason.

Yet when South Africa take to the field on Saturday, there will be six black players in the starting XV, with Kolisi as captain. For a sport resented by so many South Africans for being a white man's game, this is a huge deal. Kolisi's leadership and presence can change the perception of Springbok rugby forever.

Inspirational

Someone who knows this more than most is veteran prop Tendai ‘Beast' Mtawarira, the Springboks' third-most capped player with 116 test matches behind him.

"What Siya has achieved has been remarkable," he said. "For a young kid from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth to rise above his circumstances and become Springbok captain, and lead the way he has, it's been inspirational to all South Africans - from all walks of life."

Former England international and commentator Stuart Barnes suggested that for South Africa to have a chance of beating England, coach Rassie Erasmus should drop Kolisi in favor of veteran Francois Louw, who he sees as more competitive at the breakdown. Barnes reasoned: "Strip the politics and emotion out of the equation and the rugby case for benching Kolisi is powerful”.

Quite simply, there is no such thing as "stripping politics and emotion" from the equation when it comes to Springbok rugby. Decisions around Saturday's final cannot be reduced to dry tactics. The occasion is too big, and a South African victory has the power to lift the country like no sporting event before. Erasmus, who initially gave Kolisi the captaincy, is a wise man and duly named Kolisi in the starting lineup.

Rugby WM 2019 Team Südafrika Tendai Mtawarira (Getty Images/Gallo Images/S. Haag)

The Boks will be looking to the experienced prop Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira to got toe to toe with England's forward pack.

Throughout the World Cup, Kolisi himself has been aware of the role he plays in the Springboks' run on and off the pitch, and has shouldered the responsibility.

"Winning is very important for our country. It just shows that when we decide to work together for one goal or as a team and as a country, we can make anything happen,” he said.

South African President Ramaphosa will attend the final in Yokohama, as will Kolisi's father, who is flying overseas for the first time. Back home, a far more inclusive crowd will be glued to the TV screens.

Make no mistake: the Springboks are underdogs against a formidable England team that made mincemeat of defending champions New Zealand in the semifinal. But if Kolisi, who wears number six like Pienaar did in 1995 leads his charges to victory, it will reverberate around every corner of this vast, diverse and fractured country.

And this year's Springboks will be heroes, not just for one day or one race, but for all South Africans. 

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