Leadership comes naturally for new Bok skipper Siya Kolisi
I’m not someone who gives ‘Braveheart’ speeches. I’m all about my deeds, he says
When Siya Kolisi becomes the first black Springbok Test captain against England next month he will end more than a century of white players captaining the national team.
The Boks play against Wales in Washington on June 2 and provincial teammate Pieter-Steph du Toit has been asked to lead the team that day. Kolisi and 16 other players from the 43-man squad chosen for June’s Tests will stay behind to prepare for England.
At Ellis Park on June 9 when Kolisi leads the team he will be playing in his 29th Test and will become Bok captain No 61. Du Toit is Bok captain No 60.Kolisi though is not the first black player to captain the Springboks – hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle led the Boks against a World XV in a non-Test in 2006.
But for both young men it is a massive moment in their professional and personal lives and they will forever be known as Springbok captains. There are only 59 other men, in 127 years since SA played its first of 477 Tests in 1891, who could say that.
But for Kolisi and South Africa his appointment is a much broader statement that rugby’s glacial progression to a truly multiracial sport in SA is gathering pace. The white-tipped polar icecaps of Bok rugby have melted.
Kolisi is only 26 but he has played 103 Super Rugby games and has been part of the Springbok squad since 2012. He has earned his spurs as a player and more recently as a leader.
“The Stormers captaincy has helped my rugby in a massive way. I’m not someone who gives Braveheart speeches. I’m all about my deeds,” Kolisi said in a recent interview.
“I’ve come to realise that you won’t play well in every game. It’s something I’ve had to learn to cope with because as a leader I put myself under huge pressure to perform every week. I’m learning to deal with that personal pressure and the captaincy.”Stormers coach Robbie Fleck took a chance on appointing Kolisi as captain last year. It seemed like a risky move at the time but one Fleck had no qualms about then and still doesn’t now.
“When I told Siya that I was considering him as Stormers captain he was at a bit of a crossroads in his career,” Fleck recalls. “He was drifting a little. So we chatted about where he could go if he took the right path and also that he had a lot more value to add to SA rugby both on and off the field.
“Maybe he just needed someone to say: ‘Take your rugby more seriously’ and to also point out given his background that he had a far greater calling in SA.
“When I heard his speech at his wedding, I was blown away. It was the most uplifting speech, delivered without notes, coming straight from the heart. He spoke about his upbringing, where he wanted to go and what he wanted to achieve.
“It was full of the great values you want in a leader, and the room was captivated. That convinced me that his leadership potential was huge.”It took a few conversations, including at Kolisi’s wedding to Rachel, for the tough flank to start believing in the potential of his natural leadership that Fleck saw.
“In 2016 Fleckie (coach Robbie Fleck) said I needed to realise that I was now a senior player in the side. He was blunt. I had to get my act together,” Kolisi said.
“It made me switch my mentality. I realised that I had to stop hiding and acting like a child in the team. I had to man up and show leadership because even though I was 24 I was already quite experienced.”
Kolisi has grown as a leader and he will do some more growing over the next month but Fleck knows better than most that he will step up as a Springbok captain as well.“Siya is a hard working professional and an extremely well-respected player in the squad,” Fleck says. “He has earned those stripes by putting in the work. He is extremely humble and the Springboks would like to see him bringing out the best in the players and bringing great values to the team environment.
“Siya will develop a tight-knit culture, which is something he has achieved at the Stormers. Through good times and mostly tough times this season, he has kept the players together. That was obvious last weekend when we were down to 14 and even 13 men [against the Lions]. The guys kept playing for each other and the jersey, which is largely down to Siya’s leadership.
“He is a popular guy across all cultures and different types of dynamics within a team and that’s something I’m sure Rassie and Boks were looking for in their captain.
“Tactically and technically his on-field leadership has grown and is still growing. Rassie will have a huge influence in improving that side of his game as well.
“But tactics and relations with referees are something that can be taught and learned, but what Siya has, that can’t be taught, is an innate ability to connect people and pull them together as a group. That comes naturally to him. He has the ability to pull people together and fight for a common cause with ease.”