How Kolisi kept calm and carried us on to victory
Ellis Park was a metaphor for his personal story as he proved he is the right man for the Boks' bold new phase
Siya Kolisi’s debut as Springbok captain on Saturday was as close as a single game of rugby could come to being a metaphor of his life story.
It started with adversity, moved into a phase of determination and belligerence under testing circumstances, and ended in a thrilling win against the odds.
The Springboks’ comeback from 24-3 down after 20 minutes to beat England 42-39 at Ellis Park was a win for the ages, under the captaincy of a man who doesn’t know the meaning of “give up”.It was the second-biggest comeback in history between two tier-one rugby nations – only Wales’ 1999 comeback against Argentina was greater – and for that to happen the leadership of the team has to be composed.
Kolisi, South Africa’s first black Test captain in 127 years of playing international rugby, is only 26 (he’ll be 27 this week), but given his tough childhood of poverty, maybe winning rugby matches from impossible situations is easy by comparison.
Coach Rassie Erasmus gambled on making Kolisi captain for this series, and was vindicated because this was a contest about the team clawing out of a huge hole England had put them in. It needed clear leadership on the field and Kolisi, assisted by some older heads, gave that direction in a time of crisis.
In a huddle under the posts, Kolisi told his troops to remain calm and remember that there was lots of time left. They just had to chip away and not panic. That sense of serenity rather than a reading of the riot act eased tense players and allowed them to play without fear.
Later in the game, Kolisi, who started the match tentatively in his exchanges with referee Ben O’Keefe, became more forceful with the official – a la the All Blacks.He pointedly told O’Keefe where England were infringing, and perhaps it was his advice to the official, but at one stage the penalty count read 12-4 to the Boks.
As England buckled in the second half, Kolisi went over to England prop Mako Vunipola, who was down “injured”, and gave him a mouthful to get up and stop wasting time. England were on the ropes and were trying anything to regain their composure and ease their burning lungs in the thin highveld air.O’Keefe was not amused and told Kolisi off, asking him to leave the England player alone. But the Bok skipper had made his point and his own team’s chests puffed out a little more.
Although Kolisi had to leave the field before the end, physically and emotionally spent after what was a huge day for him and the country, by the time he exited the Boks were in control.
Duane Vermeulen, the colossal sergeant-major to Kolisi’s captain, nursed the team home in the final stages, with the skipper roaring them on from the sidelines.Afterwards, Kolisi refused to make more of the occasion and the win than was necessary. His assessment went along the lines of: “We did well to come back, we made too many mistakes, we have achieved nothing. I’m not focused on my personal situation, and I won’t until we have finished the job.”
He was all business, as you’d expect from a skipper, but he’s also a warm human being. He couldn’t keep the mask up completely as he shared a song with fans and warm embraces with some members of the media.
Kolisi is only at the beginning of a captaincy journey and the Boks are the starting line of a bold new phase.
There will be setbacks to offset the highs, but in Kolisi South Africa has a captain who is perfectly prepared to accept and overcome the challenges ahead.
After all, it’s what he has done his entire life.