Rugby World Cup: From prankster to brave captain, Siya Kolisi Kolisi reaches historic milestone

Siya Kolisi (32) will captain South Africa for the 50th time in the must-see Rugby World Cup Group B clash against Tonga in Marseille on Sunday, something that would have seemed fanciful in its early years when just having food on the table was a daily challenge.

The flankman has become an iconic figure of the game after helping his team win the 2019 World Cup title in Japan and is arguably South Africa’s most beloved sportsman. Only John Smit has more appearances as captain of the Springboks, with 83.

Kolisi never dreamed of playing for South Africa when he grew up in poverty-stricken Zwide, let alone becoming a symbol of a united team.

“I played rugby because I liked it, because it kept me out of trouble and because most of my friends played. I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be sitting here right now,” he told reporters on Friday.

His journey as captain began with the Stormers in 2017 when he was named captain by former Bok centre Robbie Fleck, and Kolisi admitted it took him some time to adjust to his new responsibilities.

“I’ve always been the prankster of the team, the trickster. Coach Fleckie went to my wedding and heard me talk. After that, he said, ‘I think you should lead the team,'” Kolisi said.

“He gave me the captain’s armband, but it took a while. I was always the last one to arrive at the party, the drunk one in the room, and now I have to be something different,” he confessed.

The Boks’ director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, also saw leadership in Kolisi and the symbolism of making him South Africa’s first black captain a year later in 2018.

Coach Rassie has known me since I was 17, Jacques (Nienaber) since I was 18. They know the kind of person I am and have built things around me. In my mind, being captain of the Springboks is already a big thing, but for so many people it meant so much more and I didn’t understand the weight of it. I was lucky to have the players we have in the group: Duane (Vermeulen), Eben (Etzebeth), Pieter-Steph (du Toit) and Handre Pollard. I honestly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the players we have.”

Kolisi still carries the feeling of playing for more than the 33 members of the World Cup squad.

Crushing someone, being crushed by someone and saying to that person, ‘I’m going to give you the change.’ It takes courage to do that,” he said.

We know it’s not just us on the field, but also the people at home. It’s hard, but we have to be brave,” he added.